Sat, Jun 14, 2014 - Page 9 News List

China building Dubai-style fake islands in S China Sea

Citing witness accounts and media reports, the Philippines and Vietnam aim to bolster resistance against the regional giant

By Joel Guinto  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Constance Chou

Sand, cement, wood and steel are the latest tools in China’s territorial arsenal as it seeks to reshape the South China Sea.

Chinese ships carrying construction materials regularly ply the waters near the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), also claimed by Taiwan, carrying out work that intends to raise new islands from the sea, according to Philippine fishermen and officials in the area. China’s efforts are reminiscent of Dubai’s Palm resort-style land reclamation, they say.

“They are creating artificial islands that never existed since the creation of the world, like the ones in Dubai,” said Eugenio Bito-onon, 58, mayor of a sparsely populated stretch of the Spratlys called Kalayaan, or “freedom” in Filipino.

“The construction is massive and nonstop. That would lead to total control of the South China Sea,” Bito-onon said on May 28, citing fishermen.

Artificial islands could help China anchor its claims and potentially develop bases to control waters that contain some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

China, which says the area falls within its 1940s-era “nine-dash line” map, successfully assumed control of the Scarborough Shoal — which it and additional claimant Taiwan refer to as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) — from the Philippines in 2012, and has pressured Vietnam in the past month with an exploratory oil rig in waters claimed by its neighbor.

“China’s end game is to have de facto — if not de jure — control over adjacent waters, the Western Pacific,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University. “The only question is if and how it will achieve it. China might need to consider more coercive measures to do so, given the hardening resistance of other claimant states.”

The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea. The islands have been at the center of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, Philippines and China. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the area killed 64 Vietnamese border guards. China has sought to cut off supplies to the Ayungin Shoal (仁愛礁), where the Philippines scuttled a naval boat in 1999 on which it stations a handful of soldiers.

The islands and reefs cover about 5km2 of land, spread over an area about the size of Iraq. It is a commercial fishing area for tuna, mackerel, squid, octopus and turtles, and may contain large oil and gas deposits.

The US Energy Information Administration in a report from February last year estimated there to be about 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 5.38 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves in the broader South China Sea. Those figures are based on both proved and probable reserves, it said.

China considers the Nansha Islands part of its territory, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) told reporters on Friday last week.

“Anything China does on any of the islands or atolls is within its sovereign rights, and the Philippines has nothing to do with it,” Hong said.

China’s land reclamation in the disputed Johnson South Reef (Chigua Reef, 赤瓜礁), about 385 nautical miles (713km) from Scarborough Shoal, started in February and “we’re almost sure that will be a base” for China, Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin said on May 15.

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