Flat White

China’s sandcastles in the sea

29 September 2021

4:00 AM

29 September 2021

4:00 AM

Afghanistan sits in the middle of everyone’s infrastructure projects like a pigeon shitting on a chessboard. The world has two options: it can either shoot the pigeon, or feed it somewhere else. China decided to scatter seed around the Taliban, overfeeding terrorism in the hope it might become a trained pet. 

Stability in the region does not have to mean liberty for its inhabitants. As far as Xi Jinping is concerned, the Taliban can ‘go nuts’ with their little religious dystopia so long as they allow China to build resource freeways through the region. 

The Gwadar deepwater port at the bottom of Pakistan is the primary goal. While China already operates it as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under a special economic zone exempting it from Pakistani taxes, it sits within a volatile area prone to ethnic violence. China’s resource veins have to navigate a difficult landscape littered with locals who like nothing better than to blow stuff up. 

Gwadar’s importance to the future of the Pacific cannot be overstated. It is the connection point between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and their Maritime Silk Road. Now that President Biden has lifted sanctions on Tehran, there is nothing stopping the Iran-Pakistan ‘peace’ pipeline project – along with a support network of refineries – from reaching completion. The pipeline extends all the way up into Xinjiang and from there, distributes Iranian oil and gas without passing through the Malacca Strait. 

China has plugged itself directly into two-thirds of the world’s oil and gas supplies while it dangles solar panels in front of gullible Westerners. 

In September, a Taliban spokesman confirmed their desire to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Islamabad admitted to playing a key role in the rise of the Taliban, so it is possible the whole region will settle down … and start preparing for conflict against the West. 

Which brings us to Taiwan. 

Hong Kong was Beijing’s hypothesis. Afghanistan was a test. Taiwan is the experiment. 

If Xi Jinping is to achieve his dream of China as the dominant global force, Taiwan must kneel. Ignore the chatter about re-unification and the convenient fantasy of bringing rebellious territories back into the fold. Taiwan is a military necessity. It is a dot on a map that Beijing needs to stick a pin into. 

China’s answer to the Malacca Strait using Gwadar was clever, but to do anything that looks like ‘conquest’, China has to solve the South China Sea. 

For all its historic power, China remains a nation caged by politically treacherous waters. It will soon be in possession of the world’s largest navy, but its fleet is trapped by the watchful gaze of suspicious neighbours. These are nations of unknown allegiance that serve as landmines for both China and its foreign guardians. 

To chew on the bars, China has established military outposts on shoals and reefs scattered along the old nine-dash-line. 


Seemingly unconcerned about climate change or rising sea levels, China has engaged in major terraforming activities, destroying the natural outcrops with deepwater ports, landing strips, troop barracks, and missile bases. These islands are often described as a thread of pearls that run from Sakhalin, along Japan and through the Ryukyi archipelago before ending in Taiwan. They may as well be bullets in a game of Russian roulette. 

Some of these projects are extremely frightening. The Paracel Islands sitting off the coast of Vietnam form a circle of heavily fortified military installations that guard Hainan where China houses its nuclear submarines. The Paracel islands (aka the ‘Wet Sand Archipelago’) are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, and China. They consist of over a hundred coral islands and reefs on a rich vein of unexplored oil and gas deposits. Weirdly, the UN isn’t particularly interested in protecting the endangered fishing grounds from China’s catastrophic construction program. 

Colonising the islands serves two purposes; it provides military outposts to sustain a prolonged hot war in the South China Sea and it manipulates UN treaty when it comes to maritime territorial claims. 

China hoped that by building tiny cities on these manufactured sand islands it would uphold their heavily disputed claim to navigation and create an exclusive economic zone. The United Nations rejected China’s contrivance. The Hauge wisely decided that the islands were dubiously acquired and left America to police freedom of navigation. This arrangement led to odd things like America’s warships zig-zagging around contested islands to show that they do not recognise Beijing’s claim. 

The weak link is the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines. It has already been the source of tension after China occupied the shoal in violation of international law. The Philippines also took China to the Hague where the UN ruled in the Philippines’ favour. China ignored the ruling, sending warships to both the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. By 2018, China had done considerable damage to the reefs despite pretending to be ‘environmentally friendly’ on the public stage. 

This marked the first big failure by the US in South China Sea politics. The Philippines had a treaty with the US and rightly asked them for help to defend the Scarborough Shoal against China’s illegal acquisition. Obama, who was president at the time, decided the islands were not worth a war and opted to make a public statement ‘cautioning China’ instead of sending warships. It was a betrayal of the close relationship the Philippines thought they shared with the US and has left an open wound in the region. 

Obama’s failure to defend the islands from China set up a pattern of behaviour just as Chamberlain’s appeasement did with Hitler during the prelude to WWII. America has allowed China to occupy and militarise reefs uncomfortably close to allies which serve as little sandcastles armed to the teeth. 

Failure to defend Asian nations in the South China Sea has resulted in China increasing its dominion over them – first with threatening behaviour and then via its debt-trap diplomacy where most nations have undermined their sovereignty and strategic assets with ‘friendly’ loans. Sri Lanka’s deepwater Hambantota Port is of the most concern to India, extending China’s presence into the Bay of Bengal. 

Taiwan and Japan stand alone in their staunch resistance. Both nations know exactly what China looks like when all the veils of nicety are removed. 

There is no point getting bogged down in the challenging social history of Taiwan, all that matters is that the island emerged from its trials as a defiant force in the South China Sea closely allied to Japan. Those who believe Taiwan is of little consequence should understand that Japan will defend the island with the full force of its military. The rest of the Quad (US, Australia, and India) will have little choice but to join in. While the loss of Taiwan would be a devastating blow on its own, opening Japan up to attack is a geopolitical catastrophe. 

Pratas Island, off the coast of Taiwan, is a Taiwanese marine national park that comes with an airstrip and base. China has attempted to lay claim to the atoll and conducted hostile drills over the water in 2020. While it is not permanently inhabited, Taiwan stations military personnel there who have authority to act in hostile situations without communicating with Taiwan. 

Taking Hong Kong gave China access to a vital port from which China has routinely sent menacing air drills, stoking speculation that Pratas Island could be the place where conflict in the South China Sea begins. China could occupy the island if it wanted meaning ‘the battle for Pratas’ might be China’s first break for freedom. 

Those who misinterpret the tensions between China and America as ‘Thucydides Trap’ fail to acknowledge China’s behaviour in the South China Sea against its neighbours. When presented with a Hitler, Napoleon, Muhammad, or Xi Jinping –  war is inevitable and weakness – fatal.  

Peace is a bloody business and China’s ‘Great Wall of Sand’ is an act of aggression. 

Taiwan sits outside China’s cage like a juicy slab of meat, oozing promise and making Beijing’s whiskers twitch. It is a poisoned bait, with Taiwan far from an easy snack. The heavily fortified island’s difficult geography exaggerates the power of Taiwan’s military. China could find itself burning through resources in the largest naval invasion in history, weakening its overall position – particularly if the West decides to make Taiwan the hill worth dying on. 

A victory for the West at Taiwan would make Russia reconsider its position, crucially keeping the slumbering giant out of the way. 

The endless speculation of political observers is about to come to an end. Before the decade is out, we will know what the world really looks like – draining the swamp of international diplomacy to reveal the jagged reefs and shoals of military allegiance. 

Geography is the mistress of every battle. It is the crusher of ambition, the quirk behind luck, and the source of envy that fuels conflict. Nature makes prisoners of the ignorant and corpses of the vain, while those who attempt to artificially master it are just as likely to be felled by a passing storm. 

The bitterness of Russia’s landmass is the reason for its eternal political endurance, while the string of islands muzzling China’s snout is all that holds its gnashing jaws from the world. 

China is the imperialist of the world, raping Africa and then trafficking the raw materials across the globe using the Middle East as pack horses. India hangs over Beijing’s plans like the sword of Damocles. The whole region is a booby-trapped tomb with forbidden gold and ancient curses. 

While the West collapses in on itself, embarrassed by its historic success – China is constructing empires out of dust and building sandcastles in the sea. 

Alexandra Marshall is an independent writer. If you would like to support her work, shout her a coffee over at Ko-Fi.

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