Tue, Dec 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

China’s South China Sea grab

China has turned contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth far from its shores — Beijing did not leave that outcome to chance

By Brahma Chellaney

Illustration: Yusha

It has been just five years since China initiated its major land reclamation in the South China Sea, and the country has already shifted the territorial status quo in its favor — without facing any international pushback. The anniversary of the start of its island building underscores the transformed geopolitics in a corridor central to the international maritime order.

In December 2013, the Chinese government pressed the massive Tianjing dredger into service at Johnson South Reef (Chigua Reef, 赤瓜礁) in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), far from China. The Spratly Islands are to the south of the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which China seized in 1974, capitalizing on US forces’ departure from South Vietnam. In 1988, the reef was the scene of a Chinese attack that killed 72 Vietnamese sailors and sunk two of their ships.

The dredger’s job was to fragment sediment on the seabed and deposit it on a reef until a low-lying artificial island emerges. The Tianjing — boasting its own propulsion system and a capacity to extract sediment at a rate of 4,530m3 per hour — did its job quickly, creating 11 hectares of new land, including a harbor, in less than four months. All the while, a Chinese warship stood guard.

Since then, China has built six more artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily expanded its military assets in this highly strategic area, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes.

It has constructed port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water and ammunition, and even airstrips and aircraft hangars on the artificial islands. Reinforcing its position further, China has strong-armed its neighbors into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones.

Consequently, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidating those claims. China’s leaders seem intent on proving the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Moreover, the world, it seems, is letting them get away with it.

The Chinese did not leave that outcome to chance. Before they began building their islands in the South China Sea, they spent several months testing possible US reactions through symbolic moves. First, in June 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) from the Philippines, without eliciting a tangible international response.

Almost immediately, China State Shipbuilding Corp (中國船舶工業集團) — which is building the country’s third aircraft carrier — published on its Web site draft blueprints for artificial islands atop reefs, including drawings of structures that have come to define China’s Spratly construction program.

However, the sketches received little international notice and were soon removed from the Web site, although they later circulated on some Chinese news Web sites.

In September 2013, China launched its next test: It sent the Tianjing dredger to Cuarteron Reef (Huayang Reef, 華陽礁), where it stayed for three weeks without initiating any land reclamation.

Commercially available satellite images later showed the dredger at another reef, Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁), again doing little.

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