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China Still Reclaiming Land in South China Sea: CSIS

  • Foreign minister said in August reclamation was completed
  • Issue may complicate Xi Jinping's first state visit to U.S.

This aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain.

Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

China is still reclaiming land in the South China Sea, a defense analyst said, a month after Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country’s island reclamation program was completed.

Satellite photos taken in early September show dredgers at work on Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, two of China’s eight outposts in the Spratly islands, according to Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The images were published by an initiative of CSIS.

Satellite imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea

Photographer: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

Indications that China is still reclaiming land may complicate President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S. this month. The U.S. and China face a growing rivalry in the South China Sea, a $5 trillion a year shipping route that the U.S. has patrolled largely unchallenged since World War II. China has been building islands to assert its claim to more than four-fifths of the sea, ratcheting up tensions with the U.S. and causing friction with other claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.

While China says the islands will be used primarily for civilian purposes, the U.S. is concerned that their militarization may hinder navigation. China contends that it is building on its sovereign territory and has also reserved the right to declare an air defense identification zone over the area.

Since Chinese land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, China has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land in the waters as of June this year, according to a Pentagon report. U.S officials have repeatedly requested China stop reclaiming land, end construction of new facilities and halt the militarization of the area.

Wang told Southeast Asian foreign ministers in August that China had completed its land reclamation and was now focusing on building civilian support facilities there that it would share with other nations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Sept. 14 China has an obligation to build defense facilities on the islands.

“On the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, Beijing appears to be sending a message to President Barack Obama that China is determined to advance its interests in the South China Sea even if doing so results in heightened tensions with the United States,” Glaser said in a report published on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website.

Satellite images at Subi Reef show dredgers pumping sediment onto areas bordered by recently built sea walls and widening a channel for ships to enter waters enclosed by the reef, according to Glaser. On Mischief Reef a dredger is expanding a channel to enable easier access for ships, possibly for use as a naval base, she said.

“The persistence of dredging along with construction and militarization on China’s artificial islands underscore Beijing’s unwillingness to exercise self-restraint and look for diplomatic paths to reduce tensions with its neighbors,” Glaser said.

In a separate AMTI report, Gregory Poling said images taken Sept. 8 show that China may be preparing to construct another airstrip at Mischief Reef, which lies 21 nautical miles (24 miles) from the Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines deliberately grounded a World War II era military vessel in 1999 that it now uses as an outpost to try to protect its interest in the area.

China’s airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef is well advanced, according to Poling, with China recently laying down paint. The strip is capable of handling “most if not all” Chinese military aircraft, he said. On Subi Reef, which is 15 nautical miles from Thitu Island, a Philippine outpost, photos taken Sept. 3 provide evidence that China is planning to construct an airstrip, said Poling, a CSIS fellow.

A third airstrip on Mischief Reef, 100 nautical miles southeast of Subi, would complete a triangle, “significantly boosting China’s air patrol and interdiction capabilities over the contested waters and features of the Spratlys, heightening tensions, and presenting greater operational headaches for all the claimants as well as outside players like the United States,” Poling said.

“The Chinese have a classic Sun Tzu philosophy of incremental steps” in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan, according to Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Sun Tzu was a Chinese military strategist who wrote “The Art of War” in the fifth century B.C.

“Because it is small steps, the Americans and their allies will not be able to respond in a strong fashion because they will seem to be over reacting,” Kaplan said on Bloomberg Television. “That is what makes China’s approach so infuriating.”

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