China stepping up Spratlys landgrab–Pentagon report
CANBERRA—A new Pentagon report saying that China’s reclamation activities and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea increased dramatically during the past few months has aroused widespread fears that the landgrab would derail diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving rival claims through United Nations arbitration.
The report, released last August, pointed out that as of last June, China had reclaimed up to 1,170 hectares across a string of islands in the Spratlys—up by nearly 50 percent from what had previously been known in May. In a press briefing held at the Pentagon as the US defense department released the report on its Asia-Pacific maritime security strategy, Assistant Defense Secretary David Shear said it was unclear whether China had stopped its island-building in the region.
“China has said it … has stopped,” Shear said. He said China may simply be “finishing up” what it had started rather than adding more territory. But: “We are watching it carefully for signs of further construction or militarization.”
The apparent stepped-up land reclamation came as bad news for the Philippines, which lies on the path of Chinese land expansion. Manila is concerned that its initiative to bring its claim for arbitration to the UN tribunal might have been compromised by increasing Chinese aggressiveness in pursuing its claim on territories also disputed by its militarily weaker neighbors.
The Pentagon report said China was in the process of completing a runway on one of its seven manmade outposts. Once the airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef is operational, China could potentially use it as an alternative runway for carrier-based planes, allowing its military to conduct “sustained operations” with aircraft carriers in the area. The report said China’s sole aircraft carrier, a Soviet-era ship bought from Ukraine and refitted in China, has carried out exercises in the South China Sea but is not fully operational.
Some experts believe that China will deploy domestic carriers by 2020 as part of its plans to develop an ocean-going “blue water” navy. China is using reclaimed sites in the Spratlys, where it is in the building phase. It has excavated deep channels and constructed new berthing areas to allow larger ships access, the Pentagon report said: “The infrastructure China appears to be building would enable it to establish a more robust power projection into the South China Sea.”
China’s foreign ministry claims that Beijing has “completed the relevant island and reef area reclamation project” at the end of June, and that the construction activities were completely within the scope of its sovereignty. China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, in an area where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
China has reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years. It now accounts for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratlys.
A paper produced by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic Studies provides another perspective. The paper, written by Huoy Duong, states: “Within the short span of a year, China’s rapid construction of artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys has radically changed the geographical and security landscapes in the South China Sea. This island construction has so far created over eight million square meters of real estate in the open sea, outstripping other countries’ reclamation activities.”
China’s land reclamation began in December 2013. It has reclaimed more than 1,170 hectares of land, the Pentagon report said. Previously, US officials had put the total at 809 hectares.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States fears that the reclaimed land would be used for military purposes and could create instability in one of the world’s biggest commercial shipping routes, which several other countries, among them the Philippines, see as international waters. And as China’s assertiveness grows, diplomats working on initiatives seeking international intervention believe that the risk of armed conflict with the United States and its allies also rises.
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