"Great Wall of Sand" is a name first used in March 2015 by US Admiral Harry Harris, who was commander of the Pacific Fleet, to describe a series of uniquely large-scale land reclamation projects by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the Spratly Islands area of the South China Sea in the period from late 2013 to late 2016.
The artificial islands were created by dredging sand onto coral reefs which were then concreted to make permanent structures. By the time of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue, over 810 hectares (2,000 acres) of new land had been created. By December 2016 it had reached 3,200 acres (1,300 ha) and "'significant' weapons systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems" had been installed.
The PRC states that the construction is for "improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands", and that, "China is aiming to provide shelter, aid in navigation, weather forecasts and fishery assistance to ships of various countries passing through the sea."
Defence analysts IHS Janes states that it is a "methodical, well planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea-capable fortresses". These "military-ready" installations include sea-walls and deep-water ports, barracks, and notably include runways on three of the reclaimed "islands", including Fiery Cross Reef,Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. Aside from geo-political tensions, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact on fragile reef ecosystems through the destruction of habitat, pollution and interruption of migration routes.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative's "Island tracker" has listed the following locations as the sites of the PRC island reclamation activities:
|Cuarteron Reef||Calderon Reef||?á Châu Viên||Access channel, Breakwaters, Multiple support buildings, New helipad, Possible radar facility||56||23|||
|Fiery Cross Reef||Y?ngsh? Ji?o ()||Kagitingan Reef||?á Ch? Th?p||Airstrip (~3000m), Harbor, Multiple cement plants, Multiple support buildings, Piers||677||274|||
|Gaven Reefs||Nánx?n Ji?o ()||Burgos Reefs||?á Ga Ven||Access channel, Anti-air guns, Communications equipment, Construction support structure, Defensive tower, Naval guns||34||14|||
|Hughes Reef||--||?á T? Ngh?a||Access channel, Coastal fortifications, Four Defensive Towers, Harbor, Multi-level military facility||19||8|||
|Mabini Reef||?á G?c Ma||Access channel, Concrete plant, Defensive Towers, Desalination pumps, Fuel dump, Multi-level military facility, Possible radar facility||27||11|||
|Mischief Reef||M?ijì Ji?o ()||?á Vành Kh?n||Airstrip (~3000m), Access channel, Fortified Seawalls||1379||558|||
|Subi Reef||Zh?bì Ji?o ()||Zamora Reef||?á Xu Bi||Airstrip (~3000m), Access channel, Piers||976||395|||
|What's behind Beijing's drive to control the South China Sea? (text) by Howard W. French in The Guardian, July 2015|
|Is China building on disputed Spratly Islands reefs? BBC News (2014)|
|Confronting China: US Navy Flies Over Disputed Islands in South China Sea AiirSource Military Videos (2015)|
|Why China is building islands in the South China Sea Vox (2017)|
Total reclaimed area by PRC on 7 reefs: approx. 13.5 square kilometres (5.2 sq mi)
The PRC used hundreds of dredges and barges including a giant self-propelled dredger, the Tian Jing Hao. Built in 2009 in China, the Tian Jing Hao is a 127m-long seagoing cutter suction dredger designed by German engineering company Vosta LMG; (Lübecker Maschinenbau Gesellschaft (de)). At 6,017 gross tonnes, with a dredging capacity of 4500m3/h, it is credited as being the largest of its type in Asia. It has been operating on Cuarteron Reef, the Gaven Reefs, and at Fiery Cross Reef.
More than half of the world's annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait, and Lombok Strait, with the majority continuing on into the South China Sea. Tanker traffic through the Strait of Malacca leading into the South China Sea is more than three times greater than Suez Canal traffic, and well over five times more than the Panama Canal. The People's Republic of China (PRC) has stated its unilateral claim to almost the entire body of water.
As the Mischief and Subi Reefs were under water prior to reclamations, they are considered by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) as "sea bed" in "international waters". Although the PRC had ratified a limitedUNCLOS III not allowing innocent passage of war ships, according to the UNCLOS III, features built on the sea bed cannot have territorial waters.
The PRC has ratified UNCLOS III; the convention establishes general obligations for safeguarding the marine environment and protecting freedom of scientific research on the high seas, and also creates an innovative legal regime for controlling mineral resource exploitation in deep seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction, through an International Seabed Authority and the Common heritage of mankind principle.
According to Chinese sources, the concept was invented in 1972 by the Bureau of Survey and Cartography of Vietnam under the Office of Premier Ph?m V?n ng which printed out "The World Atlas" and said "The chain of islands from the Nansha and Xisha Islands to Hainan Island, Taiwan Island, the Penghu Islands and the Zhoushan Islands are shaped like a bow and constitute a Great Wall defending the China mainland."
Aside from geo-political tensions, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact on fragile reef ecosystems through the destruction of habitat, pollution and interruption of migration routes. These new islands are built on reefs previously one metre (3 ft 3 in) below the level of the sea. For back-filling these seven artificial islands, a total area of 13.5 square kilometres (5.2 sq mi), to the height of few meters, China had to destroy surrounding reefs and pump 40 to 50 million cubic metres (1.4×109 to 1.8×109 cu ft) of sand and corals, resulting in significant and irreversible damage to the environment. Frank Muller-Karger, professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida, said sediment "can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built." Such plumes threaten the biologically diverse reefs throughout the Spratlys, which Dr. Muller-Karger said may have trouble surviving in sediment-laden water.
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, visiting the vicinity of the Philippine-controlled island of Pagasa by plane and boat, said he saw Chinese fishermen poaching and destroying the reefs on a massive scale. As he saw Chinese fishermen poaching endangered species like massive giant clams, he noted "None of this proves China is protecting the poachers. But nor does Beijing appear to be doing anything to stop them. The poachers we saw showed absolutely no sign of fear when they saw our cameras filming them". He concludes: "However shocking the reef plundering I witnessed, it is as nothing compared to the environmental destruction wrought by China's massive island building programme nearby. The latest island China has just completed at Mischief Reef is more than 9km (six miles) long. That is 9km of living reef that is now buried under millions of tonnes of sand and gravel."
A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report noted that "Sand is rarer than one thinks." "The average price of sand imported by Singapore was US$3 per tonne from 1995 to 2001, but the price increased to US$190 per tonne from 2003 to 2005". Although the Philippines and the PRC had both ratified the UNCLOS III, in the case of Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef and Mischief Reef, the PRC dredged sand for free in the EEZ the Philippines had claimed from 1978, arguing this to be the "waters of China's Nansha Islands". "Although the consequences of substrate mining are hidden, they are tremendous. Aggregate particles that are too fine to be used are rejected by dredging boats, releasing vast dust plumes and changing water turbidity".
John McManus, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said: "The worst thing anyone can do to a coral reef is to bury it under tons of sand and gravel ... There are global security concerns associated with the damage. It is likely broad enough to reduce fish stocks in the world's most fish-dependent region." He explained that the reason "the world has heard little about the damage inflicted by the People's Republic of China to the reefs is that the experts can't get to them", and noted "I have colleagues from the Philippines, Taiwan, PRC, Vietnam and Malaysia who have worked in the Spratly area. Most would not be able to get near the artificial islands except possibly some from PRC, and those would not be able to release their findings".