Future Chinese bases
Why does China seem to be in a hurry to build up reefs in the West Philippine Sea into artificial islands? So that by the time the international tribunal rules on the Philippine challenge to China’s fantastic “nine-dash line,” it shall have put its military forces and facilities in place. Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has sounded the alarm: “China is accelerating its expansionist agenda and changing the status quo to actualize its nine-dash-line claim and to control nearly the entire South China Sea before … the handing down of a decision by the arbitral tribunal on the Philippine submission.”
Since the Philippines filed for arbitration in January 2013, China has been beefing up some reefs in our country’s exclusive economic zone. This seems to be a different ball game from the past. Yes, China has ceaselessly needled the Philippines with acts of provocation. It has sent a fleet of fishing boats accompanied by armed patrol vessels to Ayungin Shoal which lies 196 kilometers from Palawan. Earlier, it harassed Philippine fishing boats at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. Just the past week, several jets of China’s People’s Liberation Army flew over the channel that lies between Taiwan and the Philippines and conducted drills in the Pacific Ocean. It’s like a periodic show of force, a reminder in case anyone forgets who’s the real big-shot in the neighborhood.
But the recent Chinese reclamation activities are more than just a provocation. They aim to transform the status quo so that China has an even stronger bargaining position when the international tribunal renders judgment. That is why the Department of Foreign Affairs has done well to file prompt and firm diplomatic protests each time another Chinese reclamation is spotted in the disputed waters.
The Philippines has protested China’s reclamation on Mabini Reef, and even brought up the matter during the May 2014 Asean summit. What were once a submerged reef and a sandbar have been transformed into a 30-hectare land mass. China claims it is merely “renovating the living facilities for troops stationed in the reef,” yet the status of the reef is precisely one issue to be decided by the international tribunal.
Apart from Mabini Reef, China has done “earthmoving activities” in Gavin, Calderon and Kagitingan Reefs. The latter has given rise to an artificial island 3 km long and 200-300 meters wide, capable of supporting an airstrip. A harbor was dug out on one side large enough to accommodate tankers and naval vessels. Most recently, in February, China sent a dredging ship to Panganiban (Mischief) Reef. We must remember that when China started building up Panganiban Reef in 1995, it claimed that it only intended to build shelters for its fishermen.
China’s reclamation activities violate the Convention on the Law of the Sea. These reefs lie within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, where we have the sole power to “establish and use … artificial islands, installations and structures.”
The reclamation activities also violate the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which China signed along with the Philippines and all the other Asean states. China promised to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands [and] reefs ….” China invoked this declaration against our recourse to an international tribunal. Yet here it betrays in action the very declaration it invokes as law.
One area that calls for such “self-restraint” is environmental protection. Filipino marine biologists are concerned that the dredging will damage the corals. Already Chinese boats have wantonly harvested giant clams, considered an endangered species. The scientists have sounded the alarm on the long-term environmental cost of China’s reclamation activities.
From a strict legal standpoint, the Chinese’s “artificial island” will not strengthen their claims over the neighboring waters. Real islands empower the coastal state to claim the surrounding territorial sea and exclusive economic zone. In contrast, artificial islands “do not possess the status of islands” and do not generate any maritime zones. After reclamation, the artificial island is all they get.
But perhaps that is all China needs for military and negotiating purposes. Hence its haste, stealth and reckless disregard for international law, the environment and simple, common decency.
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