China’s rapidly constructed man-made island bases in the South China Sea appear to be collapsing and sinking due to shoddy construction and weather conditions.
Intended to give China effective, albeit illegal, control over large areas of ocean in strategically located contested or international waters, these artificial islands have been a flash-point for potential conflict with the U.S. and neighboring countries. But now they seem to be sinking.
As noted by The National Interest, “the Chinese government has dredged and mostly destroyed ecologically delicate reefs in disputed waters,” beginning in 2013, “in order to build seven major military bases complete with ports, airstrips and radar and missile installations.”
China’s dredging and construction came at a huge environmental cost, destroying much of the delicate reefs and surrounding sea life.
But to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the new bases were worth the environmental cost. As The Economist explains, the bases “allow China to control the entirety of the South China Sea in any scenario short of all-out war with the United States,”
“The new port and resupply facilities are helping China project power ever further afield. Chinese survey vessels look for oil and gas in contested waters.”
These man-made bases have sparked tensions with neighboring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines who also have claims in the area. Meanwhile, the US Navy has been increasing its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in and around these artificial islands to maintain its right to sail in international waters.
In the event of war between the United States and China, these military outposts in the western Pacific would likely be key initial targets for U.S. strikes.
However, The Economist added. “Rumors suggest the new islands’ concrete is crumbling and their foundations turning to sponge in a hostile climate. And that is before considering what a direct hit from a super-typhoon might do.”
But, as The National Interest points out, “The island bases’ uncertain future hasn’t deterred China from heaping additional capabilities on their potentially fragile infrastructure.” To counter low flying threats to these outposts, a surveillance blimp for the first time appeared on Mischief Reef in November 2019.
As China continues to build additional military and surveillance capabilities on these islands, the question now may be – will the U.S. need to destroy them in a war, or will they self-destruct on their own before then?
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.