China’s artificial islands in South China Sea

December 03, 2014 11:25
The artificial islands should give the Chinese navy and air force a far greater reach and make the job of patrolling the South China Sea much easier. Photo: Internet

A couple of weeks ago, IHS Jane’s, a leading British publishing company specializing in military topics, reported that China was reclaiming land at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea and was transforming permanently submerged features that do not qualify as an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea into an artificial island big enough to accommodate an airfield and a harbor, the largest Chinese naval facility in the Spratly Islands.

With the benefit of modern technology, China is able to transform nature. In theory, at least, the artificial island then can be cited to advance its legal claims not only to a 12-mile territorial sea but also to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as well.

“The new island is more than 3,000 meters long and between 200 and 300 meters wide: large enough to construct a runway and apron,” Jane’s reported. “The dredgers are also creating a harbor to the east of the reef that would appear to be large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants.”

It went on to say: “The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope. China has built new islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs, but none are large enough to house an airstrip in their current form.”

Immediately after the disclosure, an American military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, issued a statement saying, “We urge China to stop its land reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities.”

But a Chinese military officer, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, responded by saying that the United States is biased against China since the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are all engaged in similar activities in areas that they control, yet Washington has not called on them to cease and desist.

China is a latecomer in the scramble for Spratlys features – its islands, reefs, atolls and rocks, both submerged and above water. Even though China gained control of all of the Paracels by 1974, it did not start its move southward into the Spratlys until over a decade later despite claiming all of them and today holds only seven reefs, all originally under water.

Besides Brunei, the other claimants – Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia -- have islands or have transformed reefs into islands capable of accommodating airstrips.

In an unexpected development, a Chinese officer disclosed at a security forum in Beijing, the Xiangshan Forum, that such reclamation work has been going on in six of the seven reefs under Chinese control in the Spratlys.

Those newly created islands, plus the ones in the Paracels group, such as the Woody Island airstrip, should give the Chinese navy and air force a far greater reach and make China’s job of patrolling the South China Sea much easier than if it had to do so from Hainan Island.

The next step in China’s plan may well be the declaration of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, just as it had declared one last year over the East China Sea, which overlapped pre-existing zones of Japan and South Korea, both American allies.

The US has not recognized the Chinese zone over the East China Sea. One over the South China Sea may be problematical as well.

On the brighter side, China may now feel more confident of its ability to project power within the South China Sea with its existing assets and may hence not feel the need to maintain the assertive foreign policy toward its maritime neighbors that it has pursued in recent years.

Certainly, China should realize that its neighbors do not threaten Chinese security. Rather, as President Xi Jinping acknowledged while in Australia, China is the “big guy” of whom others are wary.

That being the case, China should allow its neighbors sufficient breathing space and not push its advantage every inch of the way. After all, as the Chinese people know, it is important to have your neighbors as your friends.

And, to make it clear that “big guy” China does not believe that might makes right, it will be very helpful if Beijing is willing to submit itself to international legal arbitration to see how international law views this relatively new phenomenon of mass production of artificial islands and what status they should have under the law of the sea.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.