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China's Neighbors See Mischief In What's Happening At Disputed Reef

There's something amiss on Mischief Reef: Before and after satellite imagery of the disputed coral atoll in the South China Sea taken a few years ago and last month show that the reef is growing. And the telltale presence of a Chinese flotilla is proof of who's been at work dredging up white sand and depositing it on the surface.

Meiji Reef, as the Chinese call it, is part of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago that has long been the source of a tug-of-war between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and at least three other claimants.

Last month, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet wrote about China creating a "great wall of sand" as part of a speech to Australian policy makers. And earlier this week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released two satellite photos — one taken Jan. 24, 2012, and another on March 16 of this year — showing obvious land-reclamation work recently being done on the reef.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying acknowledged the construction.

"We are building shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting services, fishery services and other administrative services" for China and neighboring countries, Hua said, speaking to reporters. He added that the islands would also meet China's defense needs and reiterated Beijing's claim to sovereignty of the disputed island chain.

"The relevant construction is a matter that is entirely within the scope of China's sovereignty," he said. "It is fair, reasonable, lawful, it does not affect and is not targeted against any country. It is beyond reproach."

The New York Times quotes Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the CSIS' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, as saying that the reef "is one of seven small outposts the Chinese have sought to establish in the South China Sea."

"These will allow Beijing to conduct regular, sustained patrols of the airspace and water, and to attempt to press its far-flung maritime claims as many as 1,000 miles from its shores," she was quoted by the Times as saying.

In June 2014, the Philippines conducted what both sides described as a "friendly get-together" on Southwest Cay in the Spratly chain, playing soccer and volleyball. The move angered Beijing, which described it as a "clumsy farce" while demanding the two countries that also claim the archipelago should cease-and-desist.

The previous month, a Chinese patrol vessel in the another disputed chain, the uninhabited Paracel Islands, had rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, sinking the vessel and triggering angry mobs in Vietnam to set fire to some Chinese-owned factories.

In 1974, China and Vietnam engaged in a brief naval gun battle over the Paracels, and five years later, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.