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China says it’s building islands and airstrips in the South China Sea for better weather forecasts

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Reuters/US Navy
Chinese dredging vessels seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China’s recent island-building spree, the focus of tensions with its neighbors as well as the United States, is all for the sake of better weather forecasting, Chinese officials say.

Over the past two years, China has dredged up over 2,000 acres of land from what was once open sea and constructed brand new islands that will house airstrips and helipads. Critics say the construction, at an estimated seven sites near the disputed Spratly Islands, is an attempt to bolster Beijing’s territorial claims as well as provide a base for potential military operations against its rivals.

“The construction of infrastructure for observation and communication is the first step towards enhancing and improving marine meteorological monitoring, warning, forecasting, prediction and scientific research,” Ding Yihui of the Chinese Academy of Engineering told the People’s Daily over the weekend. The head of China’s Meteorological Administration, Zheng Guoguang, said the facilities were for the benefit of a region that has been “suffering from frequent oceanic disasters and extreme weather and climate events.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, overlapping territorial claims made by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

Other countries with competing claims to the potentially resource-rich islets in the South China Sea have reclaimed land to expand islands that they occupy, but only China has created entirely new islands. Officials have said the new facilities are mainly for “civilian services” but also military. “Of course, we have facilities for defense purposes” China’s US ambassador to the US told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) last month.

Last week, officials said the land reclamation project was close to completion in what security experts believe may be an attempt to diffuse tensions between Beijing and Washington before the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks in Washington this week.

But China is likely to keep building. In its announcement last week, an official spokesman said that after land reclamation, “We will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.”

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