CSIS

China is building out a handful of islands in the South China Sea, bringing diplomacy in the region to a standstill.

The growth of these tiny reefs and islands — the Spratly, Mischief, Fiery Cross, Johnson, Gaven, Cuarteron and the Eldad — is contested by a long list of trading partners, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the United States. China's rights over open water there are disputed.

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Causing mischief on Mischief Reef, January 2015.

Without a clear means to record the country's activity, it's been difficult to get a sense of what China has been up to in the past year  — until now.

Using satellite photos, a collection of reports, and the Internet, the Centers for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has made it possible to see what the before and after looks like in an new interactive.

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Gaven Reef, November 2014.

We asked AMTI Director Mira Rapp Hooper why making an interactive was important to the project: “When it comes to disputes over seemingly-minor rocks or reefs in the South China Sea, it may be hard for users to visualize the stakes involved. Why are six states struggling over these tiny features in the Spratly Islands? By using interactives to convey this important foreign policy narrative, we make these issues more tangible.”

“Because there are multiple states with stakes in these disputes, there are constantly competing national narratives, and there had previously been no single, reliable source to turn to for information on these issues,” Rapp Hooper added.

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And it looks like China is building out and on new islands faster than even experts imagined, according to new satellite photos and analysis.

Johnson South Reef, November 2014.

These islands and reefs, while small and relatively insignificant by themselves, mean much more than they appear because of the interconnected nature of the global economy.

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The territories hold military and economic significance for China, but its aggressive dismissal of international discussion about them could admittedly disrupt trade deals worth trillions of dollars, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which brings billions of dollars of new goods like produce, electronics, and clothing to the U.S.

Rapp Hooper says the “US-China relationship will be the most consequential political dynamic of the 21st century.”

Fiery Cross Reef, November 2014.

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As for China's side of the conflict, a senior Chinese official said last August that China can build whatever it wants because it has sovereignty over the territory, according to Reuters, and the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party suggests countries “get used” to it.

Until the dispute is resolved, the islands may have an economic and political impact much larger than their land mass. China accounts for a significant part of the region’s total trade.

Cuarteron Reef, November 2014.

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said as much during a recent speech in Tokyo: “Uncertainty fueled by competing South China Sea claims affects energy security; it affects trade and commerce; it creates a more unpredictable investment environment.”

The AMTI interactive also has a before and after blog that shows exactly what it looks like to build a new island, one grain of sand at a time:

Fiery Cross Reef, CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS/IHS

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Margarita Noriega is a San Diegoite living in Brooklyn. As director of social storytelling, she enjoys using new forms of social media to explore how news and information is shared online.