Building Sandcastles in the South China Sea

080629-G-9409H-602 SOUTH CHINA SEA (June 29, 2008) U.S. Navy and Republic of Singapore ships steam through the South China Sea for the second of two combined Republic of Singapore and United States naval formations during a division tactics exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2008. CARAT is an annual series of bilateral military training exercises between the United States and several Southeast Asian nations. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Angela Henderson (Released)

From just two rocks jutting out of the South China Sea, the Fiery Cross Reef has, in the space of about a year, transformed into an island complete with a three kilometer-long airstrip, a deep-water harbour, and several piers and cement factories. The reef, also known as Yongshu Island, was almost completely underwater until August 2014 when China commenced its project to construct islands that are more concrete among the Spratly Islands. The speed at which the artificial islands have appeared has been met with anger and alarm from all countries with coastlines bordering the already heavily disputed South China Sea, fanning the flames the contested waters have lit.

Figure. 1

The ever-present disagreements over maritime boundaries have soured relations for decades. With China’s own ambiguous yet “indisputable” nine-dash line covering most of the South China Sea as shown in Figure 1. Drawn up initially by Chiang Kai-Shek as the 11-dotted line in 1947, and revised in 1949 to the nine-dotted line, the claim China makes covers waters in the second most used sea lane worldwide, and also contains oil and natural gas reserves. China has already made a move on this, and last year started drilling for oil in waters disputed with Vietnam. Needless to say, there is general uproar in the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, all of which have officially protested over the proposed line.

One area in particular in the South China Sea that has become a point of contention is the Spratly Islands. The archipelago of the Spratly Islands is comprised of hundreds of uninhabited coral reefs and sandbars scattered between the Philippine coast and Vietnam’s southern coast. Now one of the biggest as a result of Chinese development, the Fiery Cross Reef is among the seven reefs that China has filled for various purposes, ranging from access channels to seawalls to military facilities. China’s most recent project in the Spratly Islands has been completed, with over 2.74 million square meters now reclaimed on this reef alone. With all seven reefs, China has reclaimed more land in the past 20 months than all other countries combined over the last 40 years, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

This development did not start so recently, however. In 1987, China was involved in a UNESCO project to build weather stations on five islands, including one on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Using this as means of justification for its occupation of the reef, it began construction in 1988, although there was nothing more than a small concrete block until 2014. Since the late 1980s, the closest any country in the region has gotten to confronting China is Vietnam, which has with little-to-no success tried to contest construction when it was denied access to the Fiery Cross Reef by China, escalating tensions between the two.

It is here that the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), created in 1982, plays a key role in the accusations. According to UNCLOS, territorial claims can only be made for islands that have been “naturally formed,” meaning an island that has not been created by humans. The addition of the phrase, penned in by the US, has been key in arguments both scholars and contesting states have made to stop the Chinese encroachment in the Spratly Islands. UNCLOS more importantly establishes that a country can have up to 200 nautical miles from their land as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), although in order to have an EEZ, one must prove that the islands in the proposed region can support human life. Under UNCLOS, if an island cannot be inhabited by human beings, it means it is just a rock in the sea, which is one of the main reasons why China is building, among other things like airstrips, houses and residential areas for habitation on these islands.

China is not the only claimant building in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam too has built a couple islands of its own; Taiwan has spent about $100 million on its island Itu Aba, including an artillery installation in 2012; and the Philippines in March of this year have gone so far as to break the self-imposed ban on construction and resume “repairs and maintenance” according to their Foreign Secretary, Albert del Rosario.

China’s intentions of constructing an island on Fiery Cross Reef were never explicitly ones that involved the military until April 9 this year, when Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying issued a statement that China officially acknowledged that their construction was intended for military as well as civilian purposes. In acknowledging this, there is a possibility that their next step will be to exert control of the sea and air with an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, as they had done back in 2013 in the East China Sea.

Efforts to slow down, if not fully stop China’s movements in the South China Sea have quickened pace since. The US Pacific Fleet will increase its number of ships deployed outside of the US by 30% over the next five years, directing much of it to patrolling the international waters charted by UNCLOS in the South China Sea. This has put China on “high alert” but tensions have not boiled over yet.

Perhaps one of the only ways in which China may be pressured to stop reclaiming land is through a public denouncement of the environmental harm it is causing to the reefs. Although this strategy sounds laughable at first, considering that China is one of the biggest polluters in the world, Hua insists that China has undertaken “scientific assessments and rigorous tests” to ensure that “the ecology of the South China Sea will not be damaged.” If genuine, then organisations like ASEAN could very well use this as a pressure point, and studies shared on the matter could be a stepping-stone forward into reducing China’s further reclamation projects in the future.

By Ceinwen Thomas