An overview of the Spratly Islands and rival claims.

Source image: Google Earth

This map shows four land features in the Spratly Islands that have undergone significant construction or land reclamation work in the past year. They are: Itu Aba, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef. Read more details about the features of these projects and use click and drag the slider in the middle to see before and after photographs.


Photo credit: Google Earth

1. Itu Aba

  • The largest land feature in the Spratly Islands, the only Spratly Island with fresh ground water, and the only island that Taiwan occupies in the South China Sea
  • 1.3 kilometers in length and less than half a square kilometer in total area
  • Held by Taiwan since 1946, when Japan left the island at the end of the Second World War
  • The Republic of China established a permanent base there in 1956
  • In 2000, Taiwan sent a Coast Guard deployment of 100 personnel to the island to replace a detachment of Marines and built an airstrip in 2008
  • Taiwan is currently in the midst of a $100 million Itu Aba port renovation that will allow it to accommodate frigates and coast guard cutters
  • It is also making improvements to its 1,200 meter runway, used mostly for C-130 cargo planes
  • Taiwan has also reportedly considered the permanent stationing of armed vessels on Itu Aba
  • In November 2014, Taiwan halted its Itu Aba port renovation after revelations that a Chinese ship and crew were involved in transport but it has since restarted
  • New reports out of Taiwan indicate that the runway renovation will be complete by the end of February, 2015


Photo credit: : ©CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS/IHS

2. Gaven Reef

  • Located in the Tizard Banks, controlled by China
  • China has had a troop and supply garrison here as far back as 2003
  • This has included a large supply platform where ships can dock, several gun emplacements, and radar and communications equipment
  • Significant construction began sometime after March 30, 2014 and was confirmed in August, 2014
  • The new artificial island is approximately 300 meters by 250 meters
  • A total of 114,000 square meters of new land has been created
  • A new building on Gaven Reef is almost identical to one on Hughes Reef, and includes a main square building with what appears to be an anti-aircraft tower


Photo credit: Google Earth

3. Johnson South Reef

  • 7.2 square kilometer submerged reef in the Union Banks occupied by China
  • Until early 2014, the only manmade feature was a small concrete platform that housed a communications facility, garrison building, and pier
  • The platform is now surrounded by an island with an area of 100,000 square meters
  • There has been some speculation that Beijing may build an airstrip on Johnson South Reef, but some experts have argued that this would be too small to have a significant strategic impact


Photo credit: ©CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS/IHS

4. Fiery Cross Reef

  • Controlled by China, which garrisons approximately 200 troops and has radar and surveillance capabilities there
  • Active land reclamation began in August 2014, although activity around the reef commenced three months prior
  • Between August and November, Chinese dredgers created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide
  • Photos taken by Digital Globe indicate that Chinese reclamation has increased the area of Fiery Cross Reef 11 times over, growing it from .08 square kilometers to .96 square kilometers.
  • Fiery Cross may now be more than three times larger than Itu Aba, formerly the largest of the Spratlys
  • Analysts believe that China may also be constructing an airstrip on Fiery Cross

Other Spratly Projects

These are some of the most notable South China Sea construction projects of the last year, but China and Taiwan are hardly the only two countries to have undertaken construction in the Spratlys. Vietnam captured Southwest Cay from the Philippines in 1975, and it has since built a harbor and other facilities there. Malaysia engaged in significant construction and reclamation at Swallow Reef after occupying it in 1983. The Philippines is planning to upgrade an airport and pier on Thitu Island. Until its work on Fiery Cross, China was the only major Spratlys claimant without an airstrip. What sets China’s activities apart, however, is that Beijing has been dramatically changing the size and structure of physical land features, while other claimants have built upon or modified existing land masses.

About Mira Rapp-Hooper

Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She was previously director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow in the Asia Program at CSIS