The next time the US sends warships by China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, officers aboard would have to decide how, if at all, they would engage with a pair of giant lighthouses that Beijing lit up there this month.
Chinese officials say the lighthouses on Cuarteron Reef (Huayang, 華陽) and Johnson South Reef (Chigua Reef, 赤瓜礁 ) in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) would help maritime search and rescue, navigational security and disaster relief.
However, experts, diplomats and foreign naval officers say the lighthouses represent a shrewd move to help buttress China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
While the US and other navies mostly rely on electronic instruments to confirm their ships’ positions, visual fixes from lighthouses are still used in certain conditions.
Any such moves would play into a strategy “geared to bolstering China’s claims by forcing other countries to effectively recognize Chinese sovereignty by their actions,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.
“If naval and other ships from other countries, including the US would be obliged to use and log them, it could be taken as de facto recognition of China’s sovereignty,” Storey said.
US officials have not confirmed or denied reports that the US Navy is to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of the artificial islands.
Asked about those reports on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the US would sail or fly wherever international law allows.
Reports last week quoted unnamed US officials who said that the operations could take place “within days” and that they were waiting for authorization from US President Barack Obama.
China claims most of the South China Sea, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. About US$5 trillion in shipborne trade passes through its strategic sea lanes every year.
References to the lighthouses are likely to find their way into international shipping charts and registers, and the logbooks of foreign navies. That would help China to potentially build a long-term legal picture of effective occupation, despite any formal diplomatic objections of rival claimants.
The lighthouses reinforce Beijing’s continued strategy of gradually “changing the facts on the water,” Storey said.
China has extensively reclaimed seven islets and atolls in the Spratlys over the past two years. The runways and other facilities China is building on them have alarmed the US and its partners in the region, who say they could be used for military purposes.
Washington has repeatedly stated it does not recognize any Chinese claim of territorial waters around the reclamations built on previously submerged reefs.
Both serving and retired Western naval officers say modern electronic navigation devices, including the US-created Global Positioning System, mean that lighthouses are of declining value to all kinds of shipping.
However, when sailing within several kilometers of ocean features such as reefs, or when electronic devices fail, ships rely on them to help fix and log a position visually.
US Navy Commander Bill Clinton, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet, did not detail the circumstances under which US ships would use the lighthouses.
However, he said, they had “no impact on 7th Fleet’s ability to fly, sail and operate in international waters of the South China Sea.”
Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence analyst with Britain’s Ministry of Defense, said building lighthouses on the reclaimed reefs was a “rather cunning” move by China.
“The use of lighthouses is declining everywhere, but there will always be times when their use is unavoidable and that goes for all mariners in the South China Sea,” Hollingsbee said.
Last year’s Sailing Directions for the South China Sea, produced by the US Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, gives extensive details on the Spratlys, including lighthouses, visible wrecks and lagoon entrances — but without citing who has sovereignty over them.
It declares about 135,000km2 as “dangerous ground” due to inadequate surveys and bad weather. It also states that sovereignty in the area is “subject to competing claims, which may be supported by a force of arms.”
China on Saturday sought to defuse tensions with Southeast Asian nations who have competing claims in the South China Sea, including Taiwan.
“We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts,” General Fan Changlong (范長龍), one of the vice chairmen of the China’s Central Military Commission, told ASEAN defense ministers at a security forum in Beijing.
China’s artificial islands “will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Fan said.
The new lighthouses “have already begun to provide navigation services to all nations,” he added.
Taiwan, as well as four ASEAN members — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — have overlapping claims in the Spratlys.
Gary Roughead, former US chief of naval operations, told the forum that the scale of the ports and airfields China is building in parts of the Spratlys raises legitimate concerns.
“I do not see an influx of tourists clamoring to visit these remote outposts,” he said.
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