China may be trying to strengthen its claim to islands in the South China Sea by literally building more. NBC News reports by way of local media that a proposal has been filed with the Chinese government that would see one of its observation posts on the Spratly Islands' Fiery Cross Reef turned into an artificial island complete with airstrip and port. The revelation follows a laundry list of similar rumors and moves outlined by Bloomberg: Government officials and fishermen alike are reporting activity throughout the Spratlys—which have been contested for decades by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and, of course, China—including ships siphoning sand and others unloading cement, wood, and steel near Johnson South Reef in May.
"We’re almost sure that will be a base" for China, said a Philippine official last month; last week, the country's president said similar activity may be happening around two additional reefs. A rep for China's Foreign Ministry had this to say the next day: "Anything China does on any of the islands or atolls is within its sovereign rights, and the Philippines has nothing to do with it." That may not exactly be true: The Johnson South Reef construction may breach a 2002 declaration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that forbids habitation of any uninhabited island or reef. The Spratlys are made up of some 100 islands and reefs that stretch over an area the size of Iraq, though together they represent about 2 square miles of land; it's an area rich in fish, and possibly oil and natural gas reserves as well.