Troubled Waters: Land Reclamation and Rising Tensions in the South China Sea

Thomas Lee

Crescent group of the disputed Paracel Islands. via Wikimedia Commons.

Crescent group of disputed Paracel Islands, 2008. via Wikimedia Commons.

The arena of a number of competing territorial claims – including from China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan – the South China Sea is at the core of converging regional interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Encompassing an area through which 40 percent of the world’s trade passes, the sea is home to rich fishing areas, potentially vast undersea oil and gas deposits, and represents a critical flashpoint of power projection in Asia. The Chinese government has long stated it owns most of the reefs and islands in the South China Sea and has asserted rights to most of the sea itself. This has enhanced Chinese military potential and, China presumably hopes, asserted its sovereignty on the reefs and islands in the sea. Satellite imagery shows mobile-artillery vehicles, harbours, military buildings and airstrips added to newly man-made islands in contentious waters, intensifying concerns about Beijing’s territorial ambitions. China insists its construction activity is for the international common good: search and rescue; disaster; meteorology; conservation; and so on. Yet foreign defence officials believe the purpose is military. The result has been increased tensions and frequent incidents in which Chinese coastal defence forces and fishermen from smaller countries have clashed in the sea. Confrontation looms, not just with Beijing’s Asian neighbours but also with the United States, as President Barack Obama’s Asia pivot could force an inevitable clash between a rising China and the world’s preeminent superpower.

Since the 1950s, many countries in the Southeast Asian region have tried to reinforce their claims in the sea by establishing outposts on the islands they control in the South China Sea. China has moved the most aggressively, transforming rocks, reefs and low-tide elevations into islands capable of hosting large vessels, airstrips, military bases and aircrafts. While sovereignty of the sea has long been a central issue between China and its neighbours, the Chinese government has rapidly increased its activity in the past few years. Dredging vessels create new land by removing sediment from the seafloor and dumping it onto submerged reefs and rocks in large quantities to make artificial islands. Recent reclamation work since 2010 includes island building and airfield construction at Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratlys; airstrip construction in the Paracels; and helipad and air defence construction at Gavin Reef. In particular, the last year has seen Fiery Cross Reef transform from a small rock only a metre above water to over 200 hectares of reclaimed land. It has already been equipped with a 3,300-metre airstrip. It is now long enough to accommodate a wide range of Chinese combat and transport planes, and has a harbour capable of handling massive ships. China’s increased assertiveness has led to multiple maritime incidents with its neighbours, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. In February, an armed Chinese coast-guard ship rammed three Philippine trawlers at the disputed Scarborough Shoal; China’s armed coast-guard vessels have also fired water cannons at Vietnamese trawlers with multiple instances of collisions. Such incidents are common because much of the territory claimed by China overlaps with the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of other countries, as defined by international law. Beijing’s reclamation and construction work has critical military, diplomatic, and legal implications.

Most countries in maritime Asia, including China, have signed and ratified the 1982 UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to the world’s oceans and creates guidelines for the use of natural resources, the environment, and commercial affairs. Under UNCLOS, countries can claim 12 nautical miles (22km) of territorial sea and 200 nautical miles of EEZ off the coast of their mainland and habitable islands. Through UNCLOS, five countries, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, claim ownership over part of the sea. Conversely, China’s claims in the South China Sea are framed in historical narrative. Beijing’s claim is expressed through the so called “nine-dashed line”, first drawn in 1947 by the Kuomintang government exiled in Taiwan, rather than the rules established through UNCLOS. The nine-dash-line cuts across the claims of other nations and encompasses about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square-km South China Sea on Chinese maps. Scarborough Shoal falls within the nine-dashed line, as do the Paracel and Spratly Islands, the two most important disputed island groups in sea; each of these formations are claimed by other countries. China insists it has sovereignty over these groups. In less than two years, it has reclaimed more than 810 hectares of land across the Spratlys alone, an area that overlaps with the EEZ of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Washington takes no position in the sovereignty debate, but is concerned with emerging threats to “freedom of navigation” in the region, which serves as a critical sea line for global trade and US naval forces. For the Chinese government, it is a matter of exerting control over vital trade routes, increasing access to unexploited natural resources, confronting historical grievances and consolidating its sense of security and power projection. More broadly, it is about China’s desire to become a power in the Pacific region on par with the United States.

China's historic and expansive nine-dashed line.  US Central Intelligence Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

China’s historic and expansive nine-dashed line (in green). US Central Intelligence Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

China’s reclamation in the South China Sea constitute a complicated legal issue. International law does not give legitimacy for historic claims to territory in the sea such as China’s nine-dashed-line, and much of the territory claimed by China overlaps with the EEZs of other countries. Under UNCLOS, however, a state does not have exclusive rights to conduct sovereign survey activities (military or reconnaissance missions) within their EEZ. While China and other claimants have essentially given up their respective economic rights contained in another country’s EEZ, they have not given up their right to actually enter the area. Importantly, under UNCLOS, sovereignty depends on the type of land. Beijing’s recent reclamation activities highlight the uncertain distinction between land formations and their designated sovereignty in the sea. Islands are entitled to the same maritime zones as land territories, meaning island owners can claim EEZs around the island. Rocks are only entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, while low tide elevations are not entitled to any territorial sea provisions at all. The status of the places that China is building is unclear. Many of the formations in contested island chains have not been officially labeled as islands, rocks, or low-tide elevations. Pre-construction, they were not islands, but some may be rocks with territorial waters; some low-tide elevations with no waters at all. By building on these formations, it appears that China could attempt to establish a 12-mile belt of territorial waters surrounding features that qualified as rocks prior to the land reclamation efforts. Due to the complex nature of tidal forces, it may be difficult to legally establish which features stood above water at high tide prior to reclamation, which could contribute to China’s sovereignty claim. On August 5, the Chinese government announced it had halted reclamation activities, but it still continues building facilities on the newly created islands. Beijing’s aggressiveness has pushed several Asian countries closer to the United States, lending justification for the American pivot to Asia.

China’s recent actions threaten to destabilize a region with enormous strategic importance for the United States and regional stakeholders. President Obama’s Pacific pivot, which aims to shift US foreign policy and military focus to face strategic challenges posed by China, has so far been incremental: a few hundred Marines stationed in Australia, ramped-up military exercises with allies, more bombers deployed to Guam. The US is also urging smaller Asian nations to collectively assert freedom of navigation and challenge Beijing with joint naval patrols. The Philippines, for instance, has upgraded security ties with the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam, while going so far as taking China to an arbitration court at The Hague. Moreover, the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free trade agreement of which China is not a part, is meant in part to check Chinese assertiveness and influence in Southeast Asia. While TPP negotiations are still ongoing, the US continues to be the dominant military presence in the region. For years, the Pentagon has sent a nuclear-powered carrier backed by up to a dozen guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates into the South China Sea at least once per year. Washington is also seeking new weapons to try and break through China’s growing ‘anti-access / area-denial’ (A2/AD) capability. Yet China’s increasingly sophisticated and formidable naval capability, and the intrinsic shift that is taking place in Asia’s balance of power, may make a more assertive stance inevitable. Instead of constraining its ambitions, Beijing seems to have become even more determined to win the scramble for disputed island and resources across the area. The United States and regional allies need to develop a comprehensive strategy for the South China Sea. Forcing China to remedy its many disputes now, when its military and maritime capabilities remain relatively weak, will make it more likely that the disputes will be resolved peacefully and in Washington’s favour. If pragmatic and coordinated defensive, diplomatic, and legal action is not undertaken, the South China Sea could be in danger of becoming a Chinese lake.

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