China is allegedly using construction ships to build either a base or an air strip on a hotly disputed atoll in the South China Sea, according to the Philippines. Philippine surveillance planes have photographed the unusual Chinese vessels, which appear to be building up the island’s surface by dredging sand from the sea bed. As the New York Times reports:
Albert del Rosario, the foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines, has said in interviews that the structure being built by China on Johnson South Reef could be an airstrip or military base. The Philippines filed a diplomatic note protesting China’s activities on the reef, and China responded that the area was Chinese territory.
China’s goal on this island, little more than a slightly elevated sandbar, isn’t going to change the balance of military power on its own. Rather, the operation seems to be directed at adding another leaf to Beijing’s slowly growing cabbage strategy. The idea here is, step by small step, to add security layers to disputed territories and create facts on the ground without provoking a strong response from the United States. So far, it seems to be working.