Editor’s Note: The story was first published in October and has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
Tensions have ratcheted up in in the South China Sea.
China has a long history of maritime disputes with its South China Sea neighbors
Dotted with small islands, reefs and shoals, the South China Sea is home to a string of messy territorial disputes that pit multiple countries against each other.
China’s “nine-dash line” – its claimed territorial waters that extend hundreds of miles to the south and east of its island province of Hainan – abut its neighbors’ claims and, in some cases, encroach upon them.
Tensions have ratcheted up as China has reclaimed land in massive dredging operations, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses.
Beijing has also warned U.S. warships and military aircraft to stay away from these islands.
Who claims what?
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all dispute sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters in the South China Sea – with rival claims to the Chinese interpretation.
The Paracel Islands have been controlled by China since 1974 but they are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Tensions flared in 2014 when China installed exploratory oil rigs in the vicinity.
The situation is more complicated in the Spratlys, which Beijing calls the Nansha islands.
The archipelago consists of 100 smalls islands and reefs of which 45 are occupied by China, Malaysia, Vietnam or the Philippines.
All of the islands are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while parts of them are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
China is actually relatively late to the party when it comes to occupying territory in the Spratly archipelago, starting its occupation of reefs and islands in the area in the 1980s.
Taiwan first occupied an island in the Spratlys after World War II, and the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia followed suit, and all have built outposts and airstrips on their claimed territory, according to Mira Rapp-Hooper, a Senior Fellow in Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
What’s China been building?
In early 2014, China quietly began massive dredging operations centering on the seven reefs it controls in the Spratly Islands – Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef and Hughes Reef.
According to the U.S., China has reclaimed 3,000 acres since the beginning of 2014.
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also reclaimed land in the South China Sea, but their land grab – the U.S. says approximately 100 acres over 45 years – is dwarfed by China’s massive, recent buildup.