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By David Tweed, Bloomberg News (TNS)

HONG KONG — The pace at which China is building islands in the South China Sea has been shown by satellite photos lending weight to claims by U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris that China is building a “great wall of sand.”

The photos, published by an initiative of the Washington- based Center for Strategic and International Studies, focus on China’s reclamation efforts in the Spratly Islands on Mischief Reef, a feature also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Artificial islands could help China anchor its territorial claims and potentially develop bases in waters that host some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Disputes over the South China Sea, of which China claims about four-fifths under a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map, have escalated as China expands the reach of its military.

Satellite photographs show construction efforts on Mischief Reef that appear to have begun only in recent months, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The group’s aim is to “promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific to dissuade assertive behavior and conflict,” according its website.

“China is creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers,” Admiral Harris said in a speech in Canberra late last month. “China is building artificial land by pumping sand on live coral reefs — some of them submerged — and paving over them with concrete.”

Philippine fishermen first reported that China was building structures on Mischief Reef in 1995, when the reef was completely submerged at high tide, according to AMTI. The structures were upgraded to a single, permanent multistory building in 1998.

By 2013, the original structures had been transformed into a “forward naval station,” permitting the basing of one People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate at a time, according to the website. Philippine fisherman last year began to report patrols by the Chinese navy and coast guard.

A photograph taken in January shows a dredger widening the entrance to the reef, the website said. While images taken “just a few months prior” didn’t indicate dredging or construction, photos taken since show sand removed from one of the reef’s entrances being used to create a land formation.

Photos on March 16 show new structures, fortified seawalls, and dredgers, in a sign that construction is progressing.

In August last year, China rebuffed efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to secure a freeze on any actions in the South China Sea that might provoke tensions. All claimants to the Spratlys except Brunei occupy islands or have built structures on reefs and shoals, according to IHS Jane’s.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March that his country has every right to carry out construction on its territory in the South China Sea and won’t accept criticism from others about its “legal and reasonable” work.

“China is carrying out necessary construction on its own islands, and that isn’t directed against and won’t affect anyone,” Wang said. “We are not comparable to some countries that like to build illegal houses on others’ territory.”

Photo: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and DigitalGlobe via TNS

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