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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

China, Trying to Bolster Its Claims, Plants Islands in Disputed Waters






China, Trying to Bolster Its Claims, Plants Islands in Disputed Waters


A Philippine surveillance photo shows an island that China has created on a reef among the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.CreditPhilippine Department of Foreign Affairs, via Associated Press

BEIJING — The islands have all that one could ask of a tropical resort destination: white sand, turquoise waters and sea winds.

But they took shape only in the last several months, and they are already emerging as a major point of conflict in the increasingly bitter territorial disputes between China and other Asian nations.

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

The island-building has alarmed Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations that also claim sovereignty over the Spratlys. Since April, the Philippines has filed protests to China against land reclamation at two reefs. This month, the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino III, criticized the movements of Chinese ships that he said could be engaged in island-building at two other sites.

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Pacific Ocean


South China Sea




Site of new island-building

Johnson South Reef



Southwest Cay Island

Fiery Cross Reef

Second Thomas Shoal


Sulu Sea


Celebes Sea




Chinese actions have also worried senior United States officials. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scolded China for “land reclamation activities at multiple locations” in the South China Sea at a contentious security conference in Singapore in late May.

Critics say the islands will allow China to install better surveillance technology and resupply stations for government vessels. Some analysts say the Chinese military is eyeing a perch in the Spratlys as part of a long-term strategy of power projection across the Western Pacific.

Perhaps just as important, the new islands could allow China to claim it has an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of each island, which is defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Philippines has argued at an international tribunal that China occupies only rocks and reefs and not true islands that qualify for economic zones.

“By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen the merits of its claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

China says it has the right to build in the Spratlys because they are Chinese territory. “China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said last month, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys. Chinese officials also contend that Vietnam and the Philippines have built more structures in the disputed region than China, so China is free to pursue its projects.

But analysts note that other countries did not build islands, and that they generally erected their structures before 2002, when China and nine Southeast Asian nations signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. One clause says the parties must “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities” that would escalate tensions and must refrain from inhabiting any currently uninhabited land features. Although the agreement is nonbinding and does not explicitly ban building on the islands or the creation of new ones, some analysts say those activities are covered.

“It’s changing the status quo,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It can only raise tensions.”

Since January, China has been building three or four islands, projected to be 20 to 40 acres each, one Western official said. He added that there appeared to be at least one installation intended for military use, and that the new islands could be used for resupplying ships, including Chinese maritime patrol vessels.

Last month, China set off alarms in the region and in Washington when a state-owned oil company placed an exploratory oil rig farther north in the South China Sea, by the contested Paracel Islands near Vietnam. The rig ignited diplomatic strife and violent anti-China protests in Vietnam.

But the island-building “is bigger than the oil rig,” said the Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting diplomatic discussions. “These islands are here to stay.”

Officials say Johnson South Reef, which China seized in 1988 after killing about 70 Vietnamese soldiers or sailors in a skirmish, is the most developed of the islands so far. “It’s Johnson Island now; it’s not Johnson Reef anymore,” the Western official said. Filipino officials released aerial photographs last month showing structures and a large ship.

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Chinese-made structures stand on the Johnson South Reef. Photo: AP

China is looking to expand its biggest installation in the Spratly Islands into a fully formed artificial island, complete with airstrip and sea port, to better project its military strength in the South China Sea, a Chinese scholar and a Chinese navy expert have said.

The planned expansion on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef, if approved, would be a further indication of China's change of tack in handling long-running sovereignty disputes from a defensive stance to an offensive one, analysts said. They said it was seen as a step to the declaration of an air defence identification zone.

The Philippines last month protested against China's reclamation activities at nearby Johnson South Reef, site of a 1988 skirmish between the Chinese and Vietnamese navies that was triggered by China's occupation of Fiery Cross Reef.

With recent developments in the South China Sea having again focused the international spotlight on China, the analysts warned reclamation at the Fiery Cross atoll - which China, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim - would further strain Beijing's relations with neighbours.

The proposal to build an artificial island there had been submitted to the central government, said Jin Canrong , a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. The artificial island would be at least double the size of the US military base of Diego Garcia, a remote coral atoll occupying an area of 44 square kilometres in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Jin added.

The reef currently houses Chinese-built facilities including an observation post commissioned by Unesco's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Li Jie, a naval expert from the Chinese Naval Research Institute, said the expanded island would include the airstrip and port. After the expansion the island would continue to house the observation post and to provide military supplies and assistance, he said.

A retired People's Liberation Army senior colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the construction of a landing strip on Fiery Cross Reef would allow China to better prepare for the establishment of an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea.

Watch: What is the East China Sea dispute about?

Beijing's declaration of such a zone over the East China Sea in December prompted concerns among Southeast Asian countries that a similar arrangement could be imposed in the South China Sea.

Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu in China, Kagitingan in the Philippines and Da Chu Thap in Vietnam, is close to sea lanes and could serve as a strategic naval staging post, said Alexander Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow.

Jin said consideration of whether and how to go ahead with the Fiery Cross Reef proposal would depend on progress on reclamation at Johnson South Reef.

"It's a very complicated oceanic engineering project, so we need to learn from the experience" on Johnson South, Jin said.

Late last month, renditions of a proposed artificial island were circulated among Chinese media. Citing a report posted on the website of the Shanghai-based China Shipbuilding NDRI Engineering, the Global Timessaid the unidentified artificial island could include a landing strip and a 5,000-tonne berth.

Zhang Jie, an expert on regional security with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China had long been researching island reclamation. Institutes and companies had drafted various designs over the past decade, said Zhang, adding that she had attended deliberation of one proposal years ago.

Building an artificial island ... would cause very severe negative impacts


"We had the ability to build artificial islands years ago, but we had refrained because we didn't want to cause too much controversy," she said.

However, this year had seen a "turning point" in which Beijing appeared to be making more offensive moves in the area, said Zhang, citing the recent deployment of an oil rig to disputed waters near Vietnam.

"Building an artificial island can no doubt provide supplies to ships and oil rigs nearby, but this would also cause very severe negative impacts in the region."

Such moves, she added, would further deepen mistrust among China's neighbours and cause instability in the region.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence in Beijing did not respond to requests for comment.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as China plans to make disputed reef a vast island



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