By merely existed as underwater reefs. In

By its 
policy  of  creating  artificial  reefs  in 
the  South  China  Sea,  to  what  extent 
is  China revolutionising concepts of maritime power? 


Fiery cross reef is an island controlled by
China, approximately 680 acres in size1,
with over 200 Chinese troops, an airbase with a 3125 m runway as well as an
early warning radar site. This military capability of the Chinese does not
sound particularly unusual, it does however when it is understood that fiery
cross island did not exist until 2014. This is same with six other islands located
in the South China Sea, they are now military bases but only a couple of years
ago they merely existed as underwater reefs. In this essay I will look at whether
China is revolutionising maritime concepts through its policy of creating these
artificial reefs. I will argue that although no state before has used this
method to assert a claim in an area outside their EEZ that currently only
exists as water, uses of land reclamation, international water disputes and
other territorial claims are not new concepts. China is adapting previous concepts
but not revolutionising maritime power.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now


China is disrupting
and changing the world order due to its “expansionist
ambitions and increasingly assertive foreign policy stance”2 that has been previously dictated
by US hegemony. One particular area of contestation lies within the South China
Sea. Tension is rising in the region and disputes are breaking out between China
and other neighbouring states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia,
Brunei and Taiwan. The most disputed debate is currently concentrated over the
Spratly islands. All the states mentioned are claiming some sort of ownership
however China are taking a far more aggressive stance and occupying many of the
islands with military bases, or creating new ones all together.

The region
is economically important as it is abundant with natural resources an estimated
11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion feet^3 of natural gas, 10% of the world’s
fish stocks3, as well as 30% of the
worlds shipping routes pass through the sea which is why it is so contested
over. However, the South China Sea’s supplies and resources are not the only disputed
claim. It also has great strategic significance. Most of the countries claiming
to have ownership over parts of the Spratly islands and other parts of the
South China Sea are basing their claims off The United Nations Convention on
the Law of the Sea which states that countries’ territorial waters extend to
200 nautical miles off their shore, this is an area known as the Exclusive
Economic Zone (EEZ). It is therefore within a country’s rights to have
exclusive access to all the resources in the EEZ as the article states that “In
the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has: (a) sovereign rights for
the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural
resources” 4. The water that does not
fall into any state’s EEZ is known as international waters and comes under UN
maritime law, allowing all states to access it. However, China are not
recognising the EEZ that was calculated by the UN in 1973 and are operating
under their own called the nine dash line.   Due to
this, China are using land reclamation so that their territorial claims (the
nine dash line) can be strengthened and to literally solidify these claims so
that they are uncontested by the other states. Reclamation is usually used to
improve or protect areas that may be affected by rising sea levels, the Netherlands,
geographically a flat and low lying country, has used this method.


It is
revolutionary however that China are using land reclamation to strengthen a
claim, rather than just expand territory. China are
going against Corbett’s thinking that the sea cannot be conquered, but by
building new land in the sea they show that it can be susceptible to ownership.

To Corbett, command of the sea is not an absolute and he categorised them into
either being “general or local, temporary or
However, China seem to be revolutionising this idea as they are transforming
the theatre in which command of the sea is usually conducted in, which could
allow them to have an absolute power and control over it. However, Chinese
policy to build these reefs allowing them more control of the region and
therefore control over passage is more in line with Corbett’s thinking. To Corbett,
passage of the sea is far more important than to operate more offensively, this
is in contrast to Mahan’s thinking who emphasised importance on the physical destruction
of the enemy. China is developing on Corbett’s work, possibly proving that
command at sea may be absolute by changing the character of the arena itself yet
still maintaining the importance of controlling the passage at sea which is
what the artificial islands would allow China to do within the South China Sea.

To this extent, China are somewhat revolutionary in adapting previous maritime
writings but mostly because they are the first country to use land reclamation
outside of their EEZ to expand territory and control.

In many
ways, China can be seen to be revolutionising concepts of maritime power.

Creating land then building military bases is transforming international
relations and territorial claims. However, many other countries have already
used land reclamation to expand their own territory although not outside their
EEZs. States such as Singapore, constricted by its coastal areas means that the
urbanised areas cannot develop onto land but new ground must be constructed on
the waters6. Since
1965, Singapore have increased its land mass by 22% to keep up with its growing
population7. Singapore
faced resistance from another state due to the land reclamation. Neighbouring
country Malaysia has expressed its dissatisfaction as it stated that projects
in the Straits of Jahore challenged Malaysia’s dominion as well as it could affect
livelihoods of the fishermen. Singapore were legally challenged under UNCLOS
although was settled after arbitration8.

In many ways, China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is similar to
what we have already seen being done in Singapore, being challenged by other
states while creating new land for their country. Due to this, China is not
venturing into new (conceptual) territory and therefore is not revolutionising
maritime concepts when looking at land reclamation to expand a country’s own

Sloan interpreted Mackinder’s Heartland theory to put it into a modern context.

He first established the relationship between geography and international
relations. China are interpreting the geography of the South China Sea as a “theatre
of military action.” 9
This has allowed China to disregard any environmental damage they may be
causing by creating the new military bases, destroying coral reefs, as flora
and fauna are not taken into consideration, the approach becomes “abstract,
simplified and schematised” 10.

It is explicitly stated by UNCLOS that low tide elevations (ground that is
submerged by the high tide) cannot be built up to “rocks” which would allow the
ground to then be built upon11.

China are disregarding this completely and continuing with creating these artificial
reefs so that they can build military bases on them.  Yet China continues with its policy of
creating these artificial reefs. Geoffrey Sloan also states how geography can
be interpreted as “an objective of policy, a prize in a conflict between two or
more states”12.

This would also be a way China are interpreting how they are conducting
operations in the South China Sea. However, rather than by just defending its
existing borders, its seeks to gain new ones as the territory they seek to gain
is part of what Sloan would call a “prize”13.

In this sense, China is not revolutionising concepts of maritime power but can
be seen to be staying closely in line with traditional perceptions of
international relations. They seek new territory and our staking a claim in it
like most countries have done throughout history.  They see the South China Sea as a military
arena that which needs to be taken control over to put their country in a more
promising position as well as to gain resources from.


Other countries have claimed sea as their own
territory, so that concept is not a revolutionary one. An example is the Gulf Sirte or Gulf of Sidra. It is located off the northern
coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. The Gulf was bought to the
international stage’s attention when in 1973, Colonel Gaddafi decided he wanted
to make it an exclusive fishing zone and claimed it to be within the internal
waters of Libya. He claimed it to be not just a mere coastal area but territorial
waters. This was established by drawing a line of 32 degrees, creating a
bay-like feature, the line was known as the Line of Death.14 Gaddafi also declared that by crossing this
line would provoke a military reaction. The rest of the world took notice to
this act and the US became involved. Using the United Nations Convention on the
Law of the Sea, the US stated that it was entitled to conduct naval operations in
the Gulf of Sirte as they worked off the standard that international waters
started 12 nautical miles from a country’s shores (territorial limit)15. Libya did take military action
to defend its claim to these waters in 1973, but this took place in the air
rather than on the water. The actions of Libya show a similar claim to waters
as China is doing in the South China Sea. Both claims are not recognised by UNCLOS
yet the states still carry out military action to defend the land and waters
that is ‘entitled’ to them. Through this more simplified
outlook, we could assess that China’s actions in the South China Sea are just a
form of territorial claim, and therefore don’t have a revolutionising effect on
concepts of maritime power.


China’s maritime claims are ambiguous as most
of it based on historical evidence, most of which has been proven to be invalid16,
especially when the nine dash line is considered. Yet China still pursue the Spratley
islands and control in the South China Sea with determination and military
force. China are using land reclamation to stake a claim in the waters and push
all other countries away who believe they are entitled to some of the
territory. Although the world has not seen building of these artificial reefs
on this scale before, land reclamation to expand a state’s territory is not a
new feat and has been seen all over the globe. Disputes about international waters
being claimed by a state has also been seen before in the Gulf of Sirte as well
as ongoing negotiations in the over the High North. To this extent, it can be
argued that in fact China is not revolutionising concepts of maritime power but
merely adapting it.


1 “Fiery Cross Reef Tracker”, Asia Maritime
Transparency Initiative, last accessed 2018,


2 Jihyun Kim, “Territorial
Disputes in the South China Sea, Implications for Security in Asia and Beyond”,
Strategic Studies Quarterly, Summer
2015, p 107, last accessed 2018


3 Shu-yuan, Lin, and Jamie Wang. “U.S.

Report Details Rich Resources In South China Sea”. Web.Archive.Org,
2013, last accessed 2018




4 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating to
the implementation of Part XI of the convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic,

5 Corbett, Julian, “War Plans: Some principles of naval
warfare, part 1”, National archives, UK, p. 103-105

6 Glaser, Haberzettl and Walsh, “Land
Reclamation in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau”, GeoJournal Vol. 24, No.

4 (August 1991), p.365-373

7 Banyan,
“Such Quantities of Sand, Asia’s Mania for “reclaiming” land from the Sea
Spawns Mounting Problems”, The Economist, 26th February 2015, last
accessed 2018


Banyan, “Such
Quantities of Sand, Asia’s Mania for “reclaiming” land from the Sea Spawns
Mounting Problems”

Sloan, “Sir Halford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, 1999, The Journal of Strategic Studies,
22:2-3, 15-38, DOI: 10.1080/01402399908437752 p 17

10 Geoffrey Sloan, “Sir
Halford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now” p 17

11 United Nations Convention
on the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI of
the convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic, 1982

12 Geoffrey Sloan, “Sir
Halford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, p16

13 Geoffrey Sloan, “Sir
Halford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, p16

14 ”
Libya Maritime Claims” Indexmundi.Com, 2017, Last accessed 2018,


15 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating to
the implementation of Part XI of the convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic,


16 Dupuy, Florian; Dupuy,
Pierre-Marie,  “A Legal Analysis of China’s Historic Rights Claim in the South
China Sea”, 2013,(PDF). The American Journal of International
Law, American Society
of International Law, 107 (1): 124–141. JSTOR 10.5305/amerjintelaw.107.1.0124.