Recent satellite imagery reveals dredging and construction activities by Chinese ships on a remote marine coral site known as Mischief Reef. The reef lies within the Spratly Islands, a territory disputed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam.

The strategy is not new. Swallow Reef, claimed by Taiwan, China, and Vietnam, currently remains under de facto control of the Malaysian government. Occupied by a permanent military presence since 1983, the country’s claim that the island lies in the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the state of Sabah has been bolstered by the construction of a luxury resort and marine research laboratory.


Coastline at Swallow Reef, licensed from Matthew Lee via Wikimedia Commons

Article 60 of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea states:

Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.

Swallow Reef’s occupation began after  Malaysia signed the Convention in 1982, providing ample evidence that the strategy persists among signatories to the treaty. Various states, making tactical use of the vagueness of the term “artificial island,” have built reefs and other shallow areas up into habitable landmasses and have settled residents upon them. These states gamble on the “natural” status of the reefs and the confrontation provoked by any attempt to remove residents to retain their claim.

The techniques employed by the states in the region suggest that territorial disputes are not resolved most effectively by historical claims about which pre-existing parcels of land belong to which countries. Instead, the governments with the means to do so have constructed  additional territory that, by definition, is already under their control. It’s not about drawing new lines on the map of terrain; it’s about putting new terrain where you’d like the lines to be.

Joshua Comaroff, writing for the Harvard Design Review, notes:

With the rise of sand trading, the nation-state has entered a dangerously fluid phase. With the coastal earthworks that are under way throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East—a series of reclamations so large that they nearly encroach on sovereign borders—territory has acquired an unprecedented liquidity.

States like Singapore, as Comaroff goes on to note, require this influx of additional territory to serve the needs of an increasing population. China’s size obviates the need for such extra living space, so its construction of territory instead serves to increase the capacities of the state: to secure resources like oil and natural gas, to increase the reach of its military, to monitor international trade.

NASA sattelite imagery of Palm Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi

NASA sattelite imagery of Palm Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi

In places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the process reaches an even higher degree of abstraction. Rather than because of the immediate need for housing space or vital resources, new territory is grown out of the ocean using imported sand to build the country’s prestige in the hopes of attracting future investment. It’s like drawing a map representing a dense high-income neighborhood according to possible, rather than actual, census data.

Securing funding to perform the gritty labor of moving land from place to place often depends upon such idealized projections of future landscapes. The dream of reduced traffic in Seattle for the low price of $3.4B (estimate circa 2006-2007) drove the construction of Bertha, a borer intended to dig an underground replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Not long into its mission, the borer broke down and had to stop. It had struck a well casing that had been installed by none other than the project planners themselves, who drilled the well to test the viability of the subterranean area for the tunnel. In an effort to continue the project, a plan to exhume parts of the borer for repairs has thus far taken over a year to complete.

Creating new surfaces under the ground and atop the sea inevitably causes spillover. More money must be spent to cover the foreseen yet unstated additional expenditures. Rival claimants to ocean territories might press their case against another state in the geopolitical arena. Extra land, whether it is waste from a tunnel or fine-grained sand for building infill, must be effectively transported from one place to another. The gap between ideal plan and construction process seems to confirm human activity’s adherence to the second law of thermodynamics– more order cannot be created in one place without a net increase in disorder elsewhere.