China’s ‘great wall of sand’
The Philippine government claimed on Saturday its diplomatic initiative to resolve its maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea had received wider international support, especially from US President Barack Obama.
The Philippines, a long-time American ally in the Asia-Pacific region, was bolstered by the strong US reaction last week to China’s massive land reclamation in the South China Sea. Speaking at a town hall event in Kingston, Jamaica, ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Obama said, “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.”
Obama, in the strongest statement so far on the reclamation, went on to say, “This can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.” The reaction followed publication of pictures that showed how Beijing was trying to create “facts in the water” to strengthen its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed the statement of support from Obama and other countries that recently criticized China for aggressively reclaiming reefs in the South China Sea, apparently trying to alter natural rock formations in disputed waters, which would affect territorial claims such as the arbitration case lodged by the Philippines in the United Nations.
Obama’s comments came amid heightened focus on Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in disputed areas of the sea.
A US think tank has released images showing land reclamation work on a reef claimed by the Philippines. China says the work “is needed to safeguard its sovereignty.” China claims almost the whole South China Sea, resulting in overlapping claims with several other Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, that say China is illegally reclaiming land in contested areas to create artificial islands with facilities that could potentially be for military use.
Images have emerged of work in multiple areas in the Spratly Islands, which several nations claim, including the Philippines, according to BBC News. The most recent images, from the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, showed work on Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef). BBC News reported that the think tank’s before-and-after satellite pictures showed manmade islands with runways and harbors, and Chinese vessels dredging sand on the reef.
Pattern of provocations
In a speech in Australia a week ago, according to BBC News, US Pacific Commander Harry Harris, said China’s land reclamation was creating “a great wall of sand” with dredges and bulldozers, over the course of months, leading to “serious questions” about its intentions. He said that by pumping sand onto coral reefs and adding concrete, China had created “over 4 sq.km. of artificial land mass” in contested waters since last year, something that Beijing said was “totally justified” as it had “sovereignty” over the area.
Harris described the land reclamation as “unprecedented.” He said that considering China’s “pattern of provocation” toward smaller claimant states in the South China Sea, the scope of the building raised “serious questions” about China’s intentions. The row over territory in the South China Sea has escalated in recent years, raising regional tensions.
The Philippines has filed a complaint in the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, but China has refused to be drawn into the arbitration process. In Vietnam, anti-Chinese violence broke out last year after China moved a drilling rig into disputed waters of the Paracel Islands. Despite the increasing Vietnamese hostility and resistance to overt Chinese incursions into areas claimed by Vietnam, Hanoi has not joined the Philippines’ arbitration case in the United Nations.
The Philippines’ diplomatic approach to the maritime dispute with China has received an unexpected boost from Indonesia, the largest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). In a visit to Tokyo a week ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said China’s claims to the majority of the South China Sea had “no legal foundation in international law.”
Short of expectation
This was the first time that Widodo had taken a position on the South China Sea dispute, but the statement fell far short of a shot in the arm that Manila needed for its diplomatic approach to resolving its dispute with China. Jakarta did not declare it was signing in to join the arbitration case. It merely indicated that it would act as a peace broker in the territorial disputes between China and Indonesia’s neighbors in the South China Sea.
“We need peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Widodo said in an interview with the Yomiuri newspaper in Tokyo. “It is important to have political and security stability to build up our economic growth. We support [a] code of conduct (in the South China Sea) and also dialogue between China and Japan, China and Asean.”
Widodo and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were to meet Monday to sign a defense cooperation agreement that would cover “how to work with Japan’s military, search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance and cyber defense.”
Japan has bolstered partnerships with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries most at odds with China over territory in the South China Sea. Japan itself is embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over uninhabited islands in rhe East China Sea. Widodo said he hoped to discuss maritime cooperation with Japan’s Coast Guard “because Japan has good experience to manage the waters”—let alone the capacity to sink hostile vessels intruding into disputed territories.
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