Sand, cement, wood and steel are the latest tools in China’s territorial arsenal as it seeks to literally reshape the South China Sea.
Chinese ships carrying construction materials regularly ply the waters near the disputed Spratly Islands, carrying out work that will see new islands rise from the sea, according to Philippine fishermen and officials in the area. China’s efforts are reminiscent of Dubai’s Palm resort-style land reclamation, they say.
“They are creating artificial islands that never existed since the creation of the world, like the ones in Dubai,” said Eugenio Bito-onon, 58, mayor of a sparsely populated stretch of the Spratlys called Kalayaan, or “freedom” in Filipino. “The construction is massive and nonstop. That would lead to total control of the South China Sea,” Bito-onon said May 28, citing fishermen.
Artificial islands could help China anchor its claims and potentially develop bases to control waters that contain some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China, which says the area falls within its 1940s-era “nine-dash line” map, successfully assumed control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 and has pressured Vietnam in the past month with an exploration oil rig in waters claimed by its neighbor.
“China’s end game is to have de facto -- if not de jure -- control over adjacent waters, the Western Pacific,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University. “The only question is if and how it will achieve it. China might need to consider more coercive measures to do so given the hardening resistance of other claimant states.”
The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea. The islands have been at the center of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, the Philippines and China. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the area killed 64 Vietnamese border guards. China has sought to cut off supplies to the Ayungin Shoal, where the Philippines scuttled a naval boat in 1999 on which it stations a handful of soldiers.
The islands and reefs cover about 5 square kilometers of land, spread over an area roughly the size of Iraq. It is a commercial fishing area for tuna, mackerel, squid, octopus and turtles, and may contain large oil and gas deposits.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration in a February 2013 report estimated there to be about 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the broader South China Sea. Those figures are based on both proved and probable reserves, it said.
China considers the islands -- which it calls Nansha -- part of its territory, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on June 6. “Anything China does on any of the islands or atolls is within its sovereign rights, and the Philippines has nothing to do with it,” Hong said.
China’s reclamation in the disputed Johnson South Reef, about 385 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, started in February and “we’re almost sure that will be a base” for China, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on May 15. The defense ministry said in May it spotted a large ship siphoning sand nearby.
The Philippines has noted activity around two more reefs, known as Gaven and Cuarteron, President Benigno Aquino told reporters on June 5. “We are again bothered, there seems to be developments, amongst them a movement of ships,” Aquino said.
Having islands with air strips could aid China if it were to seek to replicate its East China Sea air defense identification zone further south. China declared the zone in November over islands where it contests sovereignty with Japan.
“If you want to patrol and ‘enforce’ an ADIZ, you need planes in the air; these could be launched from bases in Hainan and Woody Island, or from the new aircraft carrier” China launched in 2012, Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by e-mail.
China’s reclamation efforts may serve as a template for waters disputed with Vietnam. China’s placement of the oil rig off the Paracel Islands has led to clashes between coast guard vessels.
“All unilateral actions by foreign parties that change the status quo of this area are a severe infringement of Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Nguyen Thi Thai Thong, a deputy spokeswoman for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an e-mail yesterday, referring to the Spratlys. Vietnam affirms its claim to the area, she said.
“China is already making its aerial presence felt over the South China Sea, with aircraft reported to be supporting its maritime flotilla around the oil rig off the coast of Vietnam,” said Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
Chinese vessels unloaded sacks of cement and piles of wood and steel near Johnson South Reef in mid-May, according to fishing contractor Pasi Abdulpata, who received a call from one of the 40 fishermen aboard two 65-feet-long speedboats in the area at the time.
“They looked like they were going to build houses. They came in three big ships the size of our coast guard vessels,” Abdulpata, 40, said by phone on May 28. “What China is doing is wrong, deforming the ocean.”
Asked about the safety of the fishermen, Abdulpata said: “If the Chinese would run after them, they’d know where to hide.” Even so, the crews are getting nervous, especially after the Philippines in May detained and then charged 9 Chinese fishermen with poaching in the area.
Last October, Abdulpata was fishing in the northern Spratlys near Parola Island when he encountered Chinese vessels.
“There was this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other side using a tube,” he said.
Building a structure on the Johnson South Reef may contravene a 2002 declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The non-binding Declaration of Conduct calls on parties to refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.” China strictly follows the declaration, Hong said.
The Philippines is monitoring activity at the Fiery Cross Reef, with online Chinese news portal Qianzhan.com reporting in February that China has drawn up a plan to reclaim land in the area to build a military base. Any move to fortify the reef with a runway or sea port would “raise tensions and violate the Declaration of Conduct,” Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said by phone.
China and Asean agreed to start talks last July on a legally binding code, although the discussions have made little progress.
“There have been a number of press reports about activities in the South China Sea, such as reclamation work and such as large scale construction of outposts that go far beyond what a reasonable person would consider to be consistent with the maintenance of the status quo,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel.
“Coercion and the threat of force as a mechanism for advancing territorial claims is simply unacceptable,” Russel said yesterday on a teleconference with reporters.
The Philippines has taken its dispute to a United Nations tribunal, a process China does not recognize.
Kalayaan mayor Bito-onon favors arbitration, given the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, is dwarfed militarily by China. “You can’t fight a gun with a bolo,” he said in Puerto Princesa City on Palawan Island, referring to a machete-type knife. “That’s crazy.”