Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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China Details Argument in South China Sea Dispute: China’s Position Paper and Philippine Diplomatic Gains

Yesterday, China’s foreign ministry released a position paper related to its maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea.  The paper laid out the justification for China’s refusal to take part in the arbitration proceedings that the Philippines initiated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 2013.  It comes a week before the court’s six-month deadline for a response from China.  While China’s refusal to participate should surprise no one, the paper detailed three broad reasons why it chose not to:

  • China claimed that the “subject-matter” that the Philippines submitted for arbitration is beyond the scope of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, thus, the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.  In short, China argued that the court can hardly arbitrate China’s claims, when the extent of China’s territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has not yet been determined.  (Ironically, in bringing the “subject-matter” to court, the Philippines hoped to compel China into explaining the basis for its claims under the Convention—something that it has been reluctant to do.)
  • China claimed that the Philippines had violated its earlier agreements with Beijing as well as the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (the oft-mentioned “code of conduct”), when it unilaterally initiated the arbitration proceedings.  China argued that in those agreements the Philippines pledged itself to resolve the maritime disputes through negotiation, a process that involves consent, which China clearly did not give.
  • China claimed that, in any case, it was not bound by any arbitration related to the Convention.  It reminded observers that in 2006 China filed a declaration with the United Nations in which it exempted itself from compulsory arbitration and other dispute settlement procedures.

South China Sea - China and Philippines Claims

Beijing’s position paper also appeared to lay the groundwork for a rejection of any judgment that the Permanent Court of Arbitration might render.  Certainly, over the course of the last year, China has been entrenching (literally) its position on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea through land reclamation.  It has been building up a number of islands, including Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs.  On Fiery Cross Reef, it has expanded what was once a tiny atoll into one capable of supporting an airstrip and a small harbor.  Even when Manila brought its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it had to know that it was unlikely to change China’s behavior.

So, what did the Philippines achieve?  First, it forced China to further delineate its views on the South China Sea, a feat that years of Southeast Asian prodding had failed to do.  Second, it helped to change the tenor of the maritime dispute in the region.  By forcing China to put its claims into sharper relief, the Philippines helped to show its fellow Southeast Asian claimants just how little room they have to negotiate with China.  Even Malaysia and Indonesia, which had been the most reticent about confronting China, have become firmer in asserting their own claims.  Finally, and most tangibly, the Philippines gained greater cooperation with other ASEAN countries, most notably Vietnam.  In November, Vietnam’s two Gepard-class guided-missile frigates, the newest and largest ships in the Vietnamese navy, visited Manila for the first time.  Though Southeast Asia is still far from taking a unified stand, the visit was a signal that the Philippines may not stand alone.

It is remarkable what the Philippines has achieved diplomatically, given the limited resources at its disposal and the disproportionate power of China.  But diplomacy alone cannot change the facts on the ground.  China knows that.  As an op-ed from China’s Xinhua’s news agency, released alongside Beijing’s position paper, cautioned: “it is advisable that the Philippines return as soon as possible to the right track of negotiation to settle the disputes.”  The “right track” apparently means acceptance of China’s preference for bilateral negotiations.  But the editorial went onto state that China “will not give up an inch of its land.”  That suggests that the best the Philippines (or any of the South China Sea claimants) can hope for is cooperation with China “to manage resources and protect free navigation in the South China Sea.”[1]  That is hardly an enticement to the Philippines to negotiate.

[1] Huang Yinjiazi, “Commentary: Manila’s unilateral move on South China Sea dispute unhelpful,” Xinhua, Dec. 7, 2014.

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