China’s New Islands: Dueling Imperialisms and Military Escalation in East Asia


“Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately.”

This warning was recently recorded by a CNN crew while aboard an American surveillance plane flying over the South China Sea. Given that the US aircraft was crossing disputed parts of the Spratly Islands, it is likely this kind of warning was exactly what the news crew and their military hosts were expecting to hear. After all, these islands have been at the center of territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan for decades. The new wrinkle, however, is that China – in an effort to bolster its territorial claims -is constructing larger islands by dredging sand and depositing it on shallow reefs to build islands that rise slightly above the high tide line. The creation of these larger islands – recently dubbed the “Great Wall of Sand” -as well as Chinese warnings to other militaries not to go near them, are creating a furor over China’s more assertive claims in the South China Sea.  

Not surprisingly, major American media outlets portray the recent episode of Chinese admonishment of US surveillance flyovers as a threat to US national security and – implicitly or explicitly – a justification for increased military activity in the oceans surrounding East Asia. Pundits have warned that these new islands are not only environmentally damaging projects that aim to bolster China’s claims to the area, but they could also be “anchored aircraft carriers” for a dangerous Chinese military expansion.

Not much of what is going on here, however, is all that new. Many countries, including the US, have used dredging to expand small islands for military uses (Johnston Atoll – a US outpost in the Central Pacific – for instance, was naturally just under 60 acres in size but was expanded through dredging to over 600 acres). Also, the US is currently trying to build a new Marine Corps Air Station in Northern Okinawa despite fierce local opposition. That project involves expanding the island by filling in the picturesque Oura Bay. Furthermore, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have been modifying, hardening, and creating military outposts on islands in the Spratlys for years. With these histories in mind it is worth looking more closely at this recent episode between the US and Chinese militaries in order to ask two interrelated questions. First, what is the rationale for US involvement in a territorial dispute thousands of miles from its sovereign territory? Second, why is this controversy being ratcheted up now? It seems highly unlikely the US military invited a CNN crew on board one of its spy planes bound for the Spratlys unless they had a pretty good idea that the film crew would record just such a provocative exchange with the Chinese navy. So why do it and why do it now?

Controlling territory and controlling flows: The American role on the “border” in the Western Pacific

The US does not have a territorial claim in the Spratlys (though certainly the US supports a key ally in the region that does – the Philippines), but there are other reasons the US is involved. To understand US military logics in the area it is helpful to view the seas around East Asia as a border of sorts between various powers. Because it is an oceanic border, the physical manifestations of border securitization look different than land borders. It is a border of island outposts, patrolling navies and scrambled aircraft, as opposed to one demarcated with fences and foot soldiers.

Similar to land borders, however, there are two processes that states are trying to govern in this ‘border’ space: keeping out the forces of other states, while also facilitating flows of energy supplies, raw materials and manufactured goods. Balancing these priorities, however, is not always straightforward or without its paradoxes. On the one hand states are involved in a territorial land (and sea) grab which is manifested in the multiple overlapping sovereignty claims and the associated saber-rattling.

The Spratlys are also not the only place this is going on near the coast of Asia. Islands further north like the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands (claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China), and Dokdo/Takeshima Islands (claimed by Japan and South Korea) also stoke nationalist rivalries. Because the dominant logic of international relations is that a given territory must be under the mutually-exclusive sovereignty of one state or another, these rivalries become an all-or-nothing game of nationalist bluster and masculine posturing lest a country lose its claim entirely.

The second logic of border areas, that they are spaces of intense flows of resources and trade, is also apparent in the seas around East Asia. A staggering amount of trade moves through the East and South China Seas. These seas are therefore not just fortified frontiers they are also “logistic spaces” where states are trying to facilitate certain movements rather than blocking them. Of course the two logics of this borderland are often working at cross-purposes. Territorial boundaries function to keep spaces bounded and to restrict movements and flows, whereas the constellation of ports, ships, and open sea-lanes function to make the spaces more permeable. The imperatives of states to keep out what they aim to keep out, while facilitating the quick movement through of what governments and transnational entities want to move through, may clash in some ways but they are symbiotic in another way: they both promote militarization.

While it is fairly obvious that contests over territory rely on marshalling military power, the logic of networks and facilitating flows relies on it as well. Militarization is desired for these “logistic spaces” for two main reasons. First, militarization serves to determine which state is able to control these flows. Second, militarization serves to safeguard the system of trade from disruption by other states, natural disasters, or threatening non-state actors like smugglers and pirates.

This is where American interests come into the story. The history of American militarization in the Pacific is marked much more by the logic of controlling and maintaining flows than territorial acquisition. Even when territorial ambitions were present – as with the US taking of Hawai’i, the Philippines, and Guam in the late 1800s, or Okinawa after World War Two -these ambitions were usually not ends in themselves, but rather a means to create bases that would allow the US to wrest control over trade with Asia from competing powers.

There is little difference today. US government officials – and the transnational business interests that heavily influence them – are not nearly as concerned with which country gets control over disputed piles of rocks in the South or East China Sea as they are with making sure that trade is not disrupted around these rocks. They are also concerned that China, through its aggressive moves in the seas around the region (and its increased military technologies), may develop the capability to deny the US control over these spaces of trade.

What is interesting about relationships in the region is that none of the states are interested in restricting trade – mostly they just fear that other countries can’t be trusted with being its guardian. The US doesn’t trust that the Asian periphery will function as they would like it to function if China controls the space. Likewise, China is concerned that the continued control of the space by the US and its allies (Japan, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, etc) will leave it vulnerable if the west ever decides to restrict China’s energy and trade lifelines that pass through the region.  

The US military, therefore, is involved in the region not so much out of colonial territorial ambition as much as for insuring that flows of trade occur uninterrupted. The South China Sea can be seen as a space vital to US national security, even if it is thousands of miles from its sovereign territory, because the profits that are generated through trade transiting the area are viewed as critical for the survival of American capitalist firms. As the scholar Masamichi Inoue points out, the Department of Defense declared in 2005 “The stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region is a matter of vital national interest affecting the well-being of all Americans.“While it is hard to refute this, it is does not necessarily justify US military intervention in Asian affairs. It may be true that what happens in Asia affects America -everything from its economy to its environment -it is also equally true that what happens in America affects the lives of people in Asia.

However, you don’t find Japan, South Korea or China stationing aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of San Francisco to safeguard their national interests. There is, obviously, a skewed spatial deployment of power in the Pacific that is a vestige of the US imperial view that what happens in America is America’s business and that what happens in Asia is, well, America’s business. Whether this imbalance of political and economic prerogatives is considered unfair, good, imperial or necessary can be debated, but it should be recognized as the ethic that underlies America’s military involvement on the doorstep of the Asian mainland. It is also the ethic that – when added to the already volatile territorial disputes in the region – does not bring calm, but rather increases the spiraling escalation of militarization in the region.

Why highlight China-US conflicts now?

Whilethis explains the US interests in the seas around Asia, it doesn’t explain why the US military took the provocative step of inviting a news crew onto a military plane for an overflight into territory disputed by China and others. One possible rationale for the move is to not-so-subtly remind the American public (and the publics in allied countries such as Japan and the Philippines) to support the further expansion of American militarization in the region. Despite the massive US military presence in this part of the world the US government has been attempting to further expand it as part of its doctrine of a military “Pivot-to-Asia.” The problem for the US government, however, is that it is a military project that is currently running into some resistance.

While the US has been able to increase its military foothold in Asia over the past several years with the rotation of Marines into Northern Australia, the stationing of combat ships in Singapore, and the working out of an agreement for the US to have more access to the Philippines, there has been some important opposition to US plans.

Most notable is the vociferous opposition in Okinawa to the building of the substantial new American base in the northern town of Henoko. On May 18th over 35,000 people protested in Okinawa against the building of the base. Okinawa however is not the only place where there has been important opposition. Military expansion has been resisted in US controlled territory in the Northern Mariana Islands as well. The US military is attempting to transform two islands in the Northern Marianas (Pagan and Tinian) into live-fire ranges where they can practice amphibious landings and conduct other training. Like in Okinawa these plans are currently under threat by almost unanimous local opposition.

In short, these are critical times for the expansion of US military activities in the Western Pacific. With the Environmental Impact Statement process for the new ranges in the Mariana Islands winding down and the staunchly anti-base governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, visiting Hawaii (May 27 through 29) and Washington DC (from May 31 to June 4) to lobby against the building of the new base in his prefecture, the timing is right for the US military to stoke the fires of regional instability to justify these military ventures (which of course also never hurts the sales of US made weapons systems to the US and allied militaries). CNN and other news outlets – predictably eager to sell geopolitical fear – have been more than happy to oblige with this project.

Finding solutions to the disputes in the seas around Asia is a difficult task and it is hard to see any of the countries involved as wearing the “white hat” in all of this. Instead, narrow nationalist interests are emanating from most of the capitals in the region. The Chinese government is being belligerent by pressing for exclusive territorial claims and creating “air defense zones” in the region. Japanese right-wingers such as former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are fueling tensions around Asia (even with ostensive allies such as South Korea) with territorial claims that date to the heyday of Japanese imperialism. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam are no less intractable about their claims. Throw the confrontational South and North Korean governments into the mix and you get a picture of East Asia as a region dominated by frosty relations and multi-polar instability.

The American response to this – perhaps predictably – is to pour military assets into the region to protect the space that it sees as ‘theirs’ since it is the site of the vital system of economic trade that handsomely benefits many American firms. This response may keep America’s finger on the pulse (and at the throat?) of those trade flows and maintain US influence in the region, but at what cost? As demonstrated by the recent confrontations between the US and China in the South China Sea – as well as the recent expanding protests across the islands hosting US military bases (especially in Okinawa) – just adding more military units to the area does not necessarily promote stability. While the recent confrontation in the Spratlys is likely to be used as a justification for increased US militarization in that part of the world, there is ample evidence to suggest that this knee-jerk reaction ‘to do something’ (and for that ‘something’ to be military rather than diplomatic) only inflames tensions and encourages military escalation across the region.


Sasha Davis is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Hawaii-Hilo and the author of “The Empires’ Edge: Militarization, Resistance and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific.”