China has never been a country satisfied simply by symbolic power, the kind you get when you win the World Cup, or by bringing home medals from the Olympics. Like any industrializing country, it wants the real thing: to hold the debts of large countries and to manufacture the world’s most consumed goods. It wants an impressive military and to be respected for its economic muscle.
Within a decade, economists expect China—whose GDP grows around seven percent a year—to become the world’s largest economy, overtaking the United States, which has growth of around three percent annually. As the planet’s most populous country holding the top economic spot, virtually every other nation would need to do business there, even if some question whether China can sustain such feverish growth.
One way China can grow quickly, however, is by physically spreading its reach. Sovereignty is a zero-sum game and these days all the good land is taken, so expanding your country’s territories only comes from taking someone else’s—or in China’s case, making new land.
Since January, China has quietly been building islands in the South China Sea in the Spratly Archipelago, an area of small sandbars, coral reefs and protruding rocks. International law gives China, Vietnam, and the Philippines loose ownership over the mostly unusable area—hence China’s desire to turn water into concrete. The plan is to dump enough sand to build three to four islands, each between 20 and 40 acres. They would be large enough to support buildings, roads, military equipment, perhaps even a landing strip for aircraft to touch down in an area that was once nothing but water.
If it was just a few islands, few countries but their immediate neighbors would feel threatened. Yet China’s islands are widely believe to be an experiment; if they rise without a major fight from, say, the United Nations, the country may build more. The Fiery Cross Reef, about 90 miles to the west of the originally planned islands, has caught the eye of Chinese officials as a potential place to look next. The Vietnamese government has scant legal recourse to stop the construction except for the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding agreement signed by ten Asian countries in 2010. Even that document doesn’t explicitly ban island building.
Larger, more distant countries like the U.S. and those in the European Union aren’t outwardly threatened by China’s maritime engineering. A different project in Nicaragua may change that. There, a charismatic Chinese businessman named Wang Jing has ambitions to rival the Panama Canal by building a bigger and more attractive path between the seas.
The Chinese government has denied involvement in the 172-mile (278-kilometer), $40 billion project, detailed in a lengthy New Yorker story early this year. Although located in a country where business and government are often intertwined, the windfall of money and influence are hard to miss. Under the plan revealed last week, Nicaragua will retain 51 percent of ownership of the would-be canal, gaining slightly more equity every year over the next half century. (No one has been able to confirm exactly who gets the other 49.)
What makes China so geographically ambitious? The future is filled with uncertainties about the climate, immigration, and sources of energy. A more nuanced reason may involve China’s eagerness to grow in all directions. Michael Crowley, an Asia analyst with the Foreign Policy Association, likens China’s current position to that of the U.S. in the 1890s, hoping to build an image to match its growing financial strength. Back then, the U.S. had just 44 states. The rest came over the next half century until Alaska (#49) and Hawaii (#50) were added in 1959 after decades of painstaking planning. China’s idea to expand its sovereignty is undoubtedly more efficient: Build it yourself.