The United States disagrees strongly with China’s land reclamation and build-out in the South China Sea. Washington sees Beijing’s move as heightening tension and impeding navigation safety and calls for it to stop. Beijing cites multiple reasons to justify its action and mitigate US concerns.
First, China’s actions are within the scope of its sovereignty; they are legitimate and justified, and do not violate any provisions of international law. The objections raised by the Philippines and Vietnam are politically motivated rather than well-grounded. The US should know better.
Second, China has been transparent about the island build-out, which is for a good cause. Apart from meeting China’s own defense needs, the bulk of the facilities will serve civilian purposes, including maritime search and rescue, tsunami early warning, earthquake monitoring, navigation safety, marine scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection and fishery services. Chinese officials have said time and again that in time, other countries can also access those facilities.
The South China Sea is an important shipping lane. Four-fifths of China’s external trade and half of international merchant ships pass through these waters, which span an area of over 3 million square kilometers and are prone to accidents. By constructing civilian facilities on the islands and reefs, China is contributing to navigational safety and raising the level of maritime cooperation in the region.
Since May, China has been building two multi-functional lighthouses on Huayang Reef and Chigua Reef (also known as Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef). At 50 meters high and covering 22 nautical miles in radius, the lighthouses will be a great navigational aid to ships passing through the waters, foreign as well as Chinese.
Of the six airstrips on South China Sea features, only one is built by the People’s Republic of China. Foreign reports allege that China is turning Yongshu Reef (also known as Fiery Cross Reef) into a manmade island, but China has simply tried to fulfill its international responsibility as a major maritime nation. The reef, if not built out, is not big enough to host a platform for maritime search and rescue.
Third, China is just catching up with longstanding efforts by others to build out South China Sea islands and reefs. For two years, the Philippines has been engaged in land reclamation and build-out on islands and reefs taken from China. For five years, Vietnam has been engaged in massive construction activities — including building harbor basins, runways, barracks, missile positions and helipads — on more than 20 islands and reefs seized from China.
Satellite images released by Digital World Holdings Ltd last May show Vietnam in an massive, ongoing effort to build out islands and reefs it has snatched from China. Mira Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS, points out that satellite images taken between 2010 and April 2015 show that Vietnam has enlarged Xijiao Reef and Dunqian Bank (also known as West Reef and Sand Cay) by 65,000 square meters and 21,000 square meters respectively.
Fourth, it is worth drawing attention to a little-known fact to provide some context for China’s recent activity. Back in February 1987, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission adopted a joint plan to measure the global sea level, in which it asked the Chinese government to establish five oceanic observation stations on its territory, including Station No. 74 in the Nansha (also known as the Spratlys) and Station No. 26 in the Xisha (also known as the Paracels). The representatives of international organizations and national governments, including those of the Philippines and Vietnam, voted in favor of that decision.
China chose Yongshu Reef (also known as Fiery Cross Reef) as the site for the observation station in the Nansha islands. China’s ongoing effort to improve and expand facilities thereon is, to a large extent, aimed at better fulfilling the task given to the Chinese government by the United Nations.
At any rate, on 16 June, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced the completion of construction activities on relevant islands and reefs, confirming media analysis that China would not continue the land reclamation indefinitely.
For the above reasons, the land reclamation activities have no reason to become a stumbling block in China-US relations.