An up-close encounter with China’s island-building machine

Chinese reclamation on the Johnson South Reef. (Screen capture from


Almost anything and everything we consume today is made in China: toys, utensils, clothes, electronics, you name it. But the Chinese aren’t simply content to be the world’s manufacturing hub, they’ve added another feather to their cap: Chinese-made islands being constructed in the West Philippine Sea.

British Broadcasting Company’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes took a trip to the Spratlys and saw the Chinese-made islands up-close.



Historically, the dispute for the West Philippine Sea islands was only a battle among Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all of which are controlling ACTUAL islands. China came in late to the party, with no other islands left for them to occupy. Not a problem though, they just decided to build their own.


Photos of island-building by China (Philippine Department of National Defense)


China’s basis for its occupancy is its “nine-dash line” where Chinese maps marked out all the territories it claims to own.

Because of this, in 2012, the Communist Party reclassified the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as one of its “core national interests” alongside Tibet and Taiwan. In other words, the Chinese have their eyes on the Spratlys, and are ready to build islands if they have to.

Wingfield-Hayes also paid a visit to Pag-asa Island, one of the many tiny specks of land scattered around the West Philippine Sea. It is currently inhabited by almost 100 Filipinos, who seemed to look like they were tasked by the government to spend their lives there. Wingfield-Hayes reports:


Pagasa’s most important asset lies at the far end of the island – a ramshackle village with about 30 families.

Manila claims more than 200 people live here, but I found only about 100. The civilians started coming in the late 1970s and gradually they have built a little colony here – though not out of patriotic zeal.

“We get a free house, and free food. The government gives me a job, and there is a school for our children,” says Melody, who lives here with her husband and three children.

“Back on the mainland everything is so expensive compared to here.” In a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line I can see her point.

Their host, Mary Joy, seemed to understand their roles as residents of the island:

“The Chinese have so much money,” she says. “We have so little. But it is really important for us to stay here. If we don’t I think the Chinese will come in here.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying commented on the BBC feature, saying that what they are doing is just typical of any sovereign state — protecting their own territory.

“China asserts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters, and China’s activities on relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands fall entirely within China’s sovereignty and are totally justifiable,” Hua said.

“As far as I know, the construction work China does on relevant islands is mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands.”