China is no stranger to herculean feats of construction, and its current one is both fascinating and more than a little controversial: As the New York Times reports, Beijing is building itself islands. One, dubbed Mischief Reef, is an actual reef that's part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea—islands that have also long been claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China hasn't let such details stop it from plunking down structures in the past, but as a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, the scope of China's activity has dramatically increased in recent months in what the Times calls Beijing's "remarkable speed, scale and ambition ... to literally gain ground in the dispute."
Satellite images show the land at Mischief Reef getting bigger and bigger, and China today confirmed it's using a massive dredging operation to deposit sand from the ocean's floor at the reef. Beijing has already created an island 200 miles west large enough for a runway. The flurry of activity has attracted finger-wagging from the US, with the commander of the Pacific fleet dinging it for "creating a great wall of sand," and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warning that the moves "seriously increase tensions." China appears unimpressed, notes Reuters, claiming it's simply building "shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting services, fishery services," etc. What it's really doing, per the Times: Establishing outposts in a region that's thought to be oil-rich and is definitely strategic. "These will allow Beijing to conduct regular, sustained patrols of the airspace and water," says one regional watchdog.