In-depth: China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea
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In-depth: China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea

While the Chinese real estate market is experiencing some serious problems, construction work is booming in the South China Sea, the area whose sovereignty is disputed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

Over the past year, IHS Jane’s has published several images showing large reclamation work underway on the Paracel Islands, just south of the coast of Hainan. Then, on April 16, the paper produced satellite photographs depicting a runway on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands. The paper claims that the airstrip – currently 503 meters by 53 meters – could potentially become a 3 kilometer runway which “would be well within the parameters of existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways on mainland China, which vary in length from about 2,700m to 4,000m at most.” It is the second airstrip China has built in the South China Sea, the first one being located on Woody Island in the Paracel chain.

The People’s Republic is hardly the only one who considers building infrastructures in disputed territories a good idea: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines are all involved in land reclamation projects. What makes China different from the others is the scale of its efforts: besides the new runway, China is creating further infrastructure on Cuarteron, Eldad, Gaven, Johnson, Mischief and Hughes Reef. On the latter, satellite images reportedly show that 75,000 square meters of land have already been reclaimed, while a facility is under construction.

Beijing’s motivations for undertaking such controversial work are at least two. The first one is the wish to gain control over an area through which an estimated US$5.3 trillion worth of trade goods transit every year.

“China realizes that trade routes in the South China Sea are vulnerable. They want to strengthen their presence in order to defend their claims to resources,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation. “At the moment, China is trying to maintain a presence in the area through deployments from Hainan, but that is too far away. With these bases they will be way more effective.”

One question that pretty much everyone is wondering about in chancelleries and government offices is whether Beijing intends to exploit the features it is dredging to create an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). On January 31, the Asahi Shimbun quoted Chinese anonymous sources as saying that officials in China are already laying out plans for the construction of an ADIZ which could be even more controversial than the one Beijing announced last year over the East China Sea.

China’s second goal is claiming de facto control over the disputed area and obtaining a definitive advantage over other contenders. The logic behind this tactic is that if Beijing can successfully install its military forces in the South China Sea other countries involved in territorial disputes will have no option but to cave in.

China’s sovereignty claims have been known for a long time, and the government’s interest in achieving control over the area is not much of a surprise either. After all, China is highly dependent on the trade and energy routes passing through the South China Sea. What has changed in recent years is that a stunning economic growth and a burgeoning military budget have given Beijing the clout it needed to carry its strategy forward.

What kind of counteraction other countries in the region will come up with remains to be seen. So far, there have been reciprocal accusations and naval confrontations, but China’s neighbors have not been able to do anything that could discourage Beijing from pursuing its plans.

The Philippines pushed themselves a bit further than others and in 2013 instituted arbitral proceedings against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) questioning the legality of China’s nine dash line, which covers much of the disputed territory.

But even a ruling in Manila’s favor might prove of little help. Beijing has so far declined to send an agent to UNCLOS to counter Manila’s initiative. Instead, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s website, “on February 19, 2013, China presented a Note Verbale to the Philippines in which it described ‘the Position of China on the South China Sea issues,’ and rejected and returned the Philippines’ Notification.”

This position was then repeated in a white paper published in 2014 whose first conclusion reads: “The essence of the subject-matter of the arbitration is the territorial sovereignty over the relevant maritime features in the South China Sea, which is beyond the scope of the Convention and is consequently not concerned with the interpretation or application of the Convention.”

It is hard to imagine that Beijing would backtrack on its policies, no matter how huge an impact the ruling could have on public opinion worldwide.

“I think China intends to have its own argument to counter the UCLOS. They will likely say that the position of the United Nations is outdated and should be updated to reflect new realities,” contended Abraham M. Denmark, the senior vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research, a US-based think tank.

Lacking a major diplomatic breakthrough, there is something of a consensus among experts that China’s actions will push contenders to rely more heavily on other powers – and particularly the United States – for their security. As pointed out by Mr. Denmark, “the main result will be countries reaching out to the States and the international community”.