How does China create artificial islands?

No one in the world would have noticed the establishment of two new administrative districts in the Chinese city of Sansha in mid-April. They are called Xisha and Nansha and can be found in the middle of the South China Sea, 900 km southeast of the Chinese island of Hainan. There are hardly any residents there, just a few hundred soldiers from the Chinese army. When it comes to Beijing, Sansha is not an insignificant outpost, but a Chinese heartland. Any "doubt about China's sovereignty and property" in the region or any attempt to enforce "illegal claims" is ineffective and doomed to failure, Beijing made clear.

The creation of the administrative districts is more than a formality; It shows the means by which China is trying to consolidate its claim to sovereignty over the disputed maritime areas. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Beijing last week of taking advantage of the corona crisis. "The US firmly rejects China's nodding."

While the USA and China are fighting each other almost daily on the international stage over guilt and responsibility in the pandemic, military tensions between the two countries in the South China Sea are increasing. A US warship reached the Paracel Islands region on Tuesday. Beijing then said the ship entered Chinese waters without a permit. Planes and ships have already been dispatched to observe the US ship and warn them to leave the region again. The US has seriously violated international law and China's sovereignty, according to a spokesman in Beijing.

The newly established Nansha District is to administer the islands, reefs and the sea area around the Spratly Islands. Nansha is the Chinese name for the archipelago. The second district, Xisha, is said to include the Macclesfield Bank, called Zhongsha, in addition to the Paracel Islands. These are not even islands, but rather a collection of sunken atolls and seamounts that lie underwater. One day after the announcement, Beijing also stated that there were another 80 reefs, shoals and sandbanks around the disputed region, for the first time since 1983.

The Communist Party is making historical claims in the resource-rich region between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, as marked by the so-called nine dash line. The nine red lines that China's leadership has thrown on the nautical chart look sketchy, but behind them there is anything but a fleeting claim to power. The nine lines signal Beijing's determination to mark out borders on the sea.

It is more than 1,700 kilometers from Hainan to the southernmost point of the line in front of the Indonesian Natuna Islands. China, for example, marks around 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which important routes for international sea trade run. Every map in China has now drawn the lines, and the country repeatedly puts pressure on other countries and companies to take over the border management.

Four years ago, the International Court of Arbitration rejected China's historical arguments in a high-profile dispute between Beijing and Manila. But that has not triggered a turnaround in China's maritime policy. On the contrary: the urge to create facts as quickly as possible through artificial islands and administrative ordinances and to intimidate neighbors through sea maneuvers seems to have received a new boost. Regardless of the fact that under current maritime law, artificial islands are not synonymous with natural land formations.

China's hustle and bustle in the shadow of the Corona crisis is making its neighboring countries nervous. Everyone is struggling with Covid-19, the epidemic ties up strength and attention on land - and thus opens up spaces out at sea. Taiwan's Defense Ministry reported in mid-April that a Chinese aircraft carrier and five warships had been training off its east coast. Vietnam and the Philippines have also traditionally been at the forefront in the conflict with Beijing, for many years.

In early April, a Chinese ship rams a Vietnamese fishing boat and sinks it

In February, at the meanwhile high point of the Corona crisis in China, a Filipino ship set course for the Commodore Reef that claims Manila. On the way it sighted a Chinese ship and made contact. Only one sentence came back, as the Philippine government reported: "The Chinese government has unchangeable sovereignty over the South China Sea, its islands and waters." Afterwards, the Chinese steered their fire control radar onto the ship with "hostile intent".

At the beginning of April, a ship belonging to the Chinese coast guard rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat with eight people on board and caused it to sink. In June 2019, a fishing boat from the Philippines was hit in a similar case. The Filipino crew was later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.

Most recently, Malaysia also felt much further south that Asia's great power is not giving up. The drillship West Capella is under contract with the Malaysian oil company Petronas, which is exploring oil and gas fields off the coast. In the middle of the week the ship got unwanted Chinese company, according to the findings of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti), the exploration boat is Haiyang Dizhi 8 Penetrated into the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone of Malaysia, the EEZ marks the area under international maritime law that guarantees states the sole exploitation of maritime resources.

Unsurprisingly, China recently dismissed accusations of harassment against Malaysian ships that the Chinese ship was pursuing "normal activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction," said a statement by the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Malaysia preferred not to publicly denounce China; Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein merely warned that the presence of warships increased the risk of escalation after US and Australian navy ships were sighted in the area.

According to the Amti, Chinese ships have been tracking supply boats for the Malaysians for oil exploration for weeks. Collin Koh Swee Lean, an expert on maritime conflicts at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, called the recent incidents "China's largest and most open challenge to Malaysian energy interests in the South China Sea".

Analysts see this as an attempt by Beijing to force its neighboring countries into joint ventures in energy exploitation and to give up their claims under international maritime law. Vietnam had similar experiences to Malaysia in its EEZ. And Beijing is also trying to persuade the Philippines to jointly produce oil and gas.