China's 'great wall of sand' in the South China Sea is a bid to strengthen its air superiority in the hotly contested region with an unsinkable aircraft carrier for its military planes, analysts said.
China has so far created more than four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of artificial landmass using sand and concrete on top of coral reefs on disputed island chains in the South China Sea, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris said in a speech this week.
Harris said China's "great wall of sand" raised suspicions about Beijing's intentions in the region, given its "pattern of provocative actions" in the past.
"China is creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers, over the course of months," Harris told a meeting of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
"When one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states—the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law, and the deep asymmetry between China's capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors—well it's no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raise serious questions about Chinese intentions," he said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, even areas approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, based on a 1940s Chinese map with segmented dashes outlining its territory.
But critics say the nine dashes delineate territory that is more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the nearest major Chinese landmass in places, and well within the exclusive economic zones of neighboring countries.
Harris called on Beijing to abide by international declarations and "exercise self-restraint" in the region, where a number of disputed island chains are claimed by all neighboring countries.
"How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or cooperation," Harris told the meeting.
Beijing has rejected as "hypocritical" recent criticism of its land reclamation works in the area by the neighboring Philippines.
"The Philippines criticized China's normal construction on our own islands, but in the meantime it claims to resume its construction, such as airstrips on Chinese islands it has illegally occupied," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing last week.
"This does not only violate China's territorial sovereignty but also reveals [the Philippines'] hypocritical nature," Hua said.
Far from being a sudden development, Beijing's bid to strengthen its foothold on disputed island chains is part of a longer-running military strategy, analysts said.
"China has carried out construction work to build landing strips on a number of island chains in the South China Sea, and it is understandable why this would cause concern in the U.S., Japan, Australia and other neighboring countries," retired Toledo University international politics professor Ran Bogong told RFA.
"The reason China is carrying out this construction work on the islands is it doesn't yet have an aircraft carrier that is truly battle-ready," he said.
"China will be able to expand its military capabilities in the South China Sea by using these islands as unsinkable aircraft carriers," Ran added.
And Beijing is likely to be less and less concerned with upsetting its neighbors or the U.S., according to June Teufel Dreyer, political science professor at the University of Miami.
"China has been doing this sort of thing for many years now, starting in 2012, when its actions in the South China Sea began to cause concern in the international community," Teufel Dreyer said.
"It seems that China really pays no attention, and just carries on doing exactly as it pleases anyway."
She said Beijing is far more concerned about the strategic benefits of its construction program.
"It's clear that it wants to strengthen its military capabilities in the South China Sea through the construction of runways for its aircraft," she said.
"[It also wants to strengthen] its claim to the territory within the so-called nine-dash line."
According to Reuters, China has already constructed six artificial islands near the disputed Nansha, or Spratly, island chain, including jetties and landing strips.
The South China Sea dispute, which has sparked fierce nationalistic protests in Vietnam, has ratcheted up tensions in the region and sparked occasional military stand-offs.
Last June, an international tribunal asked China to submit evidence defending its territorial claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing has rejected any attempt at international arbitration of maritime disputes, and says rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei should be handled bilaterally.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.