Most people haven’t heard of Johnson South, a lonely reef in the South China Sea in the middle of nowhere, but it could soon become a flashpoint between China and the U.S.
On most satellite photos, Johnson South, about the size of a football field, shows up as just a submerged reef in the South China Sea, not even an atoll. But since 2013, China has dredged up millions of tons of rock and sand from the seafloor to construct a brand new island. The speculation is that eventually the island will support a runway long enough for Chinese military aircraft to use.
According to Bill Hayton, the author of “South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” “This could be a real game changer in the sense that it would allow China to project power right down to the southern end of the South China Sea in a way that might threaten Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia or even the United States Navy, if there was ever a confrontation and the U.S. tried to close the Straits of Malacca to Chinese shipping.”
China has been quietly creating other artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea. On Gavin Reef, China has been engaged in a major reclamation project, and since August, the Chinese have been building an even larger, 9,850-foot-long man-made island on Fiery Cross Reef. According to a report by the security group IHS Jane’s, the island at Fiery Cross would be capable of supporting a runway and a harbor deep enough to dock warships. That would be a clear challenge by China to the claims of other nations in the South China Sea.