IN 2015, A SATELLITE SPIED BARGES OWNED BY one of the world’s biggest dredging companies, China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC), working at disputed reefs in the South China Sea. The Chinese were busy converting bits of contested rock into seven artificial islands, much to the chagrin of the five other governments with competing claims over the western Pacific Ocean. Admiral Harry Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command, criticized China’s island-building campaign, which includes military-ready runways and radar nests, calling it “a Great Wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers.” In July 2016, an international tribunal dismissed Beijing’s vast claims over the South China Sea. No matter. China’s new islands will not be unmade.
CCCC will soon begin more reclamation work in the western Pacific. This time, its crews will be dredging in the Philippines, the longtime U.S. ally that, until recently, had staunchly opposed China’s maritime construction. But in October, amid a flurry of deals made during new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to Beijing, CCCC won a contract to develop a harbor in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown where he was once mayor. While in China, Duterte, who took office this past June, announced the Philippines’ “separation” from the U.S., proclaiming that in the military and economic spheres, “America has lost.” Chinese state-owned c