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China is building islands in the South China Sea

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While the Philippine navy keeps soldiers aboard a ghost ship

US-Philippine naval exercises in South China Sea
US-Philippine naval exercises in South China Sea
US Navy via Flickr

Suppose you’re a rising superpower with your eye on some ocean territory, but all the good islands are taken. What do you do? You could go to war, or you could build your own islands.

China has been taking the latter option, dredging millions of tons of rock and sand and piling it on top of submerged reefs in the South China Sea. The BBC floated by some of the construction sites, documenting projects on five different reefs, including one that appears to be a concrete runway long enough to accommodate fighter jets.

"core national interest"

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia all control islands in the South China Sea, which is believed to hold large deposits of oil and natural gas. In 2012, China declared the region a "core national interest," and it has been increasingly aggressive in asserting control over it, deploying an aircraft carrier in 2013, and moving an enormous oil rig into the area earlier this year.

As various countries jockey for supremacy, even tiny, ersatz islands can play an important role. The Philippine navy, for instance, has 11 marines stationed aboard a ghost ship called the Sierra Madre, which The New York Times Magazine visited last year. There’s just something about ocean fortresses that calls out for longform multimedia treatment.

Lead image: US-Philippine naval exercises in South China Sea