Courtesy Reuters Vietnamese motorboats anchor at a partially submerged island in the Spratlys, April 18, 2010.

Pandora's Sandbox

China's Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea

Ongoing international disputes over territory in the South China Sea have led many to invoke an old adage: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” Beijing is using all these approaches simultaneously, but with an ambitious twist -- as it tells other claimants to pound sand, China is pouring it. 

A prominent case in point is a major reclamation project on the disputed 7.2-square kilometer (4.5-square mile) Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago. Photos taken since March 2012 document China’s creation of a 30-hectare (74-acre) island atop the previously submerged reef by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In addition to a communications platform built after China wrestled the atoll from Vietnam in 1988 (killing 64 Vietnamese sailors in the process), over the last two years China appears to have set up additional radars, satellite communication equipment, anti-aircraft and naval guns, a helipad, a dock, and even a wind turbine. IHS Jane’s and other observers have pegged the reef as the potential home of China’s first airstrip in the Spratlys.

China’s beach building is not limited to Johnson South Reef, which may, in fact, just be a warm-up act. Satellite images have confirmed similar dredging activities, albeit at a smaller scale, at three other structures in the Spratly archipelago: Cuateron Reef (the southernmost of China’s reclamation projects), Gaven Reef, and Johnson North Reef. But Chinese efforts center on Fiery Cross Reef. Beijing’s 1987 announcement that it would establish an “ocean observation station” there on behalf of UNESCO helped trigger the 1988 skirmish on nearby Johnson South Reef. It reportedly serves as a base for China’s reclamation efforts and already boasts an eight-square kilometer (five-square mile) artificial structure with a wharf, helipad, coastal artillery, and garrisoned marines. China, currently rumored to be in the process of adding an airstrip and enlarging the harbor, may eventually transform Fiery Cross into a military base twice the size of Diego Garcia, a key U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean. It could become a command-and-control center for the Chinese navy and might anchor a Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ) similar to the one it announced over the East China Sea in 2013. Prominent Chinese strategist Jin Canrong suggests that Fiery Cross Reef construction is a complex “oceanic engineering project,” the ultimate scale of which depends on how Johnson South turns out. Such an initiative would clearly require central government resources, and he notes that the plan has been forwarded to the Chinese state council for approval.

Yet, despite media claims, including statements by Chinese experts, Beijing’s precise plan for fortifying the Spratly Islands remains speculative. Beijing has declined to provide authoritative, detailed information that might dispel myths and clarify the intent and scope of China’s operations. When questioned by a reporter about island reclamation, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry replied, “China has indisputable sovereignty over [the Spratly] Islands including [Johnson South] Reef and the contiguous waters. Whatever construction China carries out in [Johnson South] Reef is completely within China’s sovereignty.” In reality, however, by creating new facts of ground, Beijing is expanding the territory it controls and literally changing the security landscape in the South China Sea.

FACTS OF GROUND 

China lays claim to the entire Spratly Islands and their 820,000 square kilometer (510 square mile) area. The archipelago contains more than 550 islands, sandbanks, reefs, and shoals, many of which are also partially or fully claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. With the exception of Taiwan, even the northernmost atolls are far closer to the shores of rival claimants than to mainland China. 

Although it has exercised caution in making official statements about land reclamation in the Spratlys, it is no secret that Beijing has long worked to enhance and occupy the bits of rock it claims in the South China Sea. It has already established manned garrisons on seven of the hundreds of Spratly features. And existing garrisons on Fiery Cross and Subi Reef, each with various radar surveillance capabilities, already house about 100–200 troops. Several years ago, there was even a photo exhibit at the Shanghai Navy Museum showing small-scale earthmoving and compaction equipment on one of the Spratly Islands.

Of course, it is unfair to single out recent Chinese reclamation activities without considering the actions of other claimants. A brief historical refresher suggests that even though China’s current behavior is troubling, China did not necessarily open Pandora’s sandbox. For example, Vietnam captured Southwest Cay from the Philippines in 1975, and it has since built a harbor and other land features there. In total, it has occupied 29 islands and reefs in the Spratlys. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Naval Station Lima on Swallow Reef is the result of substantial reclamation efforts after Kuala Lumpur’s occupation of the atoll in 1983. In 2008, Taiwan completed an airstrip on Taiping Island, the largest in the Spratly group, which Taipei occupied in 1955 and on which it already had an extensive navy garrison and radar station. In addition, the Philippines occupies ten Spratly structures and is planning to build an airport and pier on Thitu Island. China is apparently the only major claimant to territory in the Spratlys without an airstrip there, although not for long. 

Still, whether Beijing is a leader or follower in land reclamation in the Spratlys, it is undoubtedly the only claimant whose economic prowess can support projects that, without violence, significantly alter the status quo there. Admittedly, it is difficult to find credible data on whether other contenders have dredged or pursued similar island-building tactics. Nonetheless, given their considerably lower capabilities for such work, it is unlikely that any other county has, or will engage in, sand pouring on par with China’s current construction efforts. For example, China may invest over $5 billion over ten years on reclamation in Johnson South Reef; the Philippines’ 2014 military budget is less than $2 billion. China’s German-built Tianjing Hao dredger, the largest of its type in Asia and China’s primary weapon in island-building, cost approximately $130 million to build -- nearly three-fourths of the per-unit cost that Vietnam paid for some of its Russian-built Gepard-class frigates, its most advanced warship.

SO WHAT?

So what are the implications of China’s large-scale island building? Some international observers believe that, beyond asserting de facto sovereignty, China’s efforts to amass sand on the reef and rock formations are aimed at strengthening its claim to the 322-kilometer (200-mile) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) abutting its coastline and all of its islands under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This seems unlikely. Article 60 of UNCLOS explicitly states that artificial structures are not equal to islands and that their existence has no bearing on the demarcation of territorial seas, EEZs, or continental shelves. Although China could theoretically argue that it is building on pre-existing natural island structures, other countries would surely dispute that claim -- and they could furnish pictures to prove it. China itself has lambasted similar behavior by Japan on the Okinotorishima atoll in the Philippine Sea.

That doesn’t mean that pouring sand is pointless. Unlike Beijing’s recent temporary deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY)-981 oil rig to regions disputed by China and Vietnam, as well as the placement of four additional rigs in the South China Sea in late June, “island building” will eventually support permanent civilian and military infrastructure. This will enable China to diversify its strategy for asserting territorial claims in the Spratlys. Some of the structures in question lie within the EEZ claimed by the Philippines, and are situated just 300­–400 kilometers (186­–249 miles) from the Philippines and Vietnam. 

Arguably more discomfiting for other states, a mature network of military facilities in the Spratlys, including an expanded Fiery Cross presence, would effectively extend China’s ability to project power by over 800 kilometers (500 miles), particularly through Chinese Coast Guard patrols in contested areas and potentially even air operations. Similar to its relative economic supremacy, China’s relative advantages in military size, modernization, and professionalism suggest that it is the only South China Sea claimant that is potentially capable of establishing de facto air and sea denial over tiny islet networks in a maritime setting as vast as the Spratly archipelago

Another concern is that the creation of facts of ground might spur China’s announcement of one or more ADIZ in the South China Sea. However, if that is China’s goal, there are plenty of reasons for it to exercise restraint. First, antagonizing multiple neighbors and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) simultaneously is a far greater price to pay than further inflaming already-poor relations with China’s bête noire, Japan, as it did when it declared its first ADIZ over the East China Sea last November. Second, declaring an ADIZ over the full extent of its claims in the South China Sea would presumably require Beijing to define, for the first time, the precise geographical coordinates of the “9-dash line” it draws on maps to claim the vast majority of the South China Sea, or at least provide more clarification than it has to date. 

Such transparency, together with China’s declaring a second ADIZ in general, would increase pressure on Beijing to specify the basis for its claims in the area -- something it has declined to do, presumably because there is no consistent legal basis for all of them. In addition, declaring an ADIZ over the full extent of China’s claims in the South China Sea might expose Beijing’s still-limited ability to monitor and patrol the southernmost part of its claim, which is far from Chinese land-based radars and major airfields. Although bulking up islands could help Beijing enhance its surveillance capacity, it will take time to develop the ability to patrol the entire South China Sea, a prerequisite for being able to establish an enforceable ADIZ in the future. 

Finally, and arguably most disconcerting, although China might not have initially opened Pandora’s sandbox, its large-scale digging could lead to an arms race of augmentation in an already-sensitive sea. Other regional states probably cannot come close to matching the raw scale of Beijing’s ambitious construction, yet they -- particularly the Philippines or Vietnam -- will surely find ways to protect their claims more creatively. None of this suggests a forecast of calm seas around the Spratly archipelago.

ISLAND DISPUTE

With the future looking turbulent, the international community should undertake a technologically-informed study of island feature augmentation to better understand which parties, particularly in the East China Sea and South China Sea, are capable of such construction; which have done so, or are doing so; how difficult and expensive such buildup is; and how durable the artificial islands are likely to be in this typhoon-prone region. Addressing these questions will help concerned countries in the region and abroad gain a better understanding of the short- and medium-term implications of China’s sandbox in the Spratlys, as well as how the neighborhood is likely to react.

The international community will also have to consider the implications of China’s island building on international maritime law. If Beijing’s strategy even partially enhances its presence and the momentum of its claims, it could trigger an arms race as rival claimants fortify features under their respective control with sand, structures, and ships. That could undermine the otherwise potentially moderating influence of existing norms and international agreements such as UNCLOS. 

To be sure, China, like other states in the region, still faces inevitable constraints on its ability to contest maritime territorial claims despite its ability to easily out-dredge and out-drill smaller neighbors. Beijing’s entrepreneurial sand pouring, which comes on the back of an upsurge of oil extraction near the disputed Paracel Islands, still faces legal and political barriers that prevent more decisive actions. 

As such, it is too early to list artificial island augmentation in the same category as the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which are regarded as Chinese engineering triumphs over inconvenient geographic conditions. Even so, ongoing island building is a demonstration of Beijing’s use of creative thinking to address its security concerns. For now, expect new facts on the ground -- and of ground -- to emerge from the roiled South China Sea. 

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