The Making of an Island

New land is claimed in many ways. Revolutions are declared, borders are drawn and nations are born. But in this region the land is created. A brand new lighthouse will show the way.

This stamp comes from Malaysia and shows five islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The tiny, white dots are islands; if you follow the white lines you see them on the actual stamp as satellite images, and on some you can even see the dotted overcast clouds. The red line on the map indicates the maritime boundary of Malaysia, meaning this is their part of the sea. (Quite amusingly, it looks as though Malaysia is an island by itself, since the stamp makers have omitted the bordering countries from the map. Brunei is simply a dent in the coastline and Indonesia, which lies south of Malaysia, has disappeared as well.)
These islands are part of the Spratly Islands and are located in an area of the South China Sea, which is about 1000 km long and 400 km wide. Since this region is of highly economical and strategic importance, many islands are disputed between the bordering countries. Presently Vietnam, China, and Taiwan claim all of the islands, the Philippines claim most of them, and Malaysia claims some of them. Indonesia and Brunei have economic interests in the area although they make no formal claims. The history of ownership of the islands is long and complex, and finding out who claims what is no easy task.

There are numerous maps to be found online, each showing certain preferences.
This very schematic map probably has Vietnamese origins. Vietnam owns most islands on this map, is ranked first in the legend and has a star as a symbol, the national symbol of the Vietnamese flag.

On the map below, created by Middlebury College, the maritime borders and claims are added and it tells who occupied what island as per 1996.
On the next map, drawn on top of a CIA map, Wikipedia user Estarapapax (who can be traced back to the Philippines) posted all these little flags. It is not clear who claims what because of the multitude.
The most neutral map for the area is a nautical chart. No claims are made; it simply states the depth of the ocean and the running of the tides.

British Admiralty Nautical Chart 4508: Pacific Ocean, South China Sea.

This maritime chart is drawn by the Hydrographic Department of the Japanese Coast Guard in 1985 and published by the British Admiralty. The Admiralty publishes these maps for the Navy but also sells these to commercial clients. Paper charts are still obligatory on board for commercial freight liners; they are updated regularly and stamped on the date of printing.
This stamp is there because the sea is in constant motion and you have to set a date for that particular state. The changes are there because of the tide, but in this particular area also because of the changes in the seascape, or, better, the landscape.

Photograph from the International Space Station of the South China Sea which includes Union Reefs, a part of Spratly Islands, 31 January 2003.

Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center
The Crusoe Islands and rocks look very idyllic. The fact that these rocks are there also makes it possible to claim land there in the first place: if there was merely sea, there would be nowhere to stake your flag. And if you can claim land, you can also claim the sea around it. Once you control the sea, you control what is called the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ), giving you the fishing rights, definition over who can pass there, and even the right to exploit maritime and subsoil resources such as fish, oil, and gas. So there is more than meets the eye, and we have good reasons to believe that this is exactly what makes these islands so disputed.

First settlement on Fiery Cross Reef, 1988.

Steve Jiau
Reality is therefore not so idyllic as the picture above might suggest. As early as 1988, China decided to build a small ‘station’ on Fiery Cross Reef. The reason, they said, was to conduct meteorological and scientific research. Imagine staying there for months: the amount of fresh water and food that would be needed to be transported. And what started out as a small settlement turned into a huge land reclamation project.

Over the course of just one year this happened on Fiery Cross Reef. A new island was constructed with a harbor, sea walls, a hospital, military barracks, helipads, a multi-story tower, a running track, basketball and tennis courts, and an airstrip.

This airstrip allows commercial airlines to organize PR trips. Two test flights took place in January 2016 and these photographs were shot and distributed by the Chinese government to celebrate that moment.

Chinese stewardesses pose on Fiery Cross Reef to celebrate the test flights carried out by two commercial airliners on January 6, 2016.

The text translates roughly as: Forever Yongshu Reef, which is the Chinese name for this island.

This land reclamation campaign extends to other islands in the area. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has an extensive database where all the changes are tracked.

This is Cuarterton Reef. It used to be a rock occupied and controlled by China but claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan.

Cuarterton Reef in 2014.

And here it is three years later.

Cuarteron Reef in 2017.


This is Mischief Reef in 2012. It is located in the so-called ‘Dangerous Ground’ of the South China Sea. An area which is very tricky to navigate through during low tide.

Mischief Reef in 2012.

In 2014 China started with land reclamations. And an airstrip was also built here.

Mischief Reef in 2017.


And this is what Subi Reef looked liked, also an atoll. At low tide land emerged. But most of the time it was underwater.

Subi Reef in 2012.

Here is Subi Reef three years later, complete with a landing strip for airplanes, a helipad, a weather observation station and a vegetable garden for the residents.

Subi Reef in 2017.

This is another early Chinese settlement located on Johnson Reef.

First settlement on Johnson Reef (Chi Gua), note the hyphen in THE PEOPLES RE-PUBLIC OF CHINA, 1988.

Steve Jiau
Here it is already more advanced, this is how it still looked like in 2004.
But in 2014 they also started dredging sand here and built a proper island.

Overview of Johnson South Reef made by a Philippine newspaper in 2017.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
This is the same reef, seen from another angle. Pay extra attention to the type of buildings on these man made islands. Observation towers, multi-story buildings, windturbines, radio domes for communications and of course a lighthouse. Lighthouses are trustworthy, help sea men navigate and give a sense of control. At the same time they are also imposing power and claiming territory. (More about the legal implications of these constructions you can read here.) And so it is no surprise that the Chinese government puts lighthouses on all the islands they created. And when that was done, they published these stamps.

Lighthouses on the Spratly Islands, 1.20-1.5, People Republic of China, October 2016.

China Post

So this is the lighthouse of Cuarteron Reef. It has a reversed swastika sign which forms a geometric pattern. In the western iconography the swastika is strongly associated with the Nazi regime, but in the East it has different connotations. In Hindu religion the swastika is a symbol for day and the reversed sign symbolizes the night – which would make sense for a lighthouse.

This is the stamp of Subi Reef, an elegant black and white design. The black and white stripes also mark out the tower from the horizon and make it easier to spot the lighthouse. On the stamp we can see other land in the background and a tourist boat is approaching.

This is the lighthouse of Mischief Reef. It looks like a Chinese casino, or a ‘pagoda’, as it stands. This reef is very close to the Philippines and they also protested when China started to reclaim land here. And when this lighthouse was erected.

Here is the lighthouse on Johnson Reef, this has a variation of what we know as the meander border. But in China it is known as two represent clouds and thunder patterns. Thus bringing life because of rain.

Lighthouse on Johnson Reef.

And this is the lighthouse on Fiery cross reef. This geometrical of the meander is also seen here in the base of the lighthouse. And here also land on the horizon.

This is how things started. A small settlement on a rock with tanks for freshwater.

First settlement on Fiery Cross Reef, 1988.

Steve Jiau
Now it is one of the most advanced bases that China built in these parts. With a runway for large airplanes, a hospital and mobile missile launchers. A lot of this reclaimed land is not recognized as new land by the International court in The Hague; rather, they accept reference only to the natural state of the island, and most of that is below sea level. However, that clearly does not stop China from making new land. And making stamps.

Overview of Fiery Cross Reef.

People’s Daily