Saturday, May 9, 2015

• China pursuing huge South China Sea land reclamation: US - by Dan De Luce - AFP

China has dramatically ramped up its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea this year, building artificial islands at an unprecedented pace to bolster its territorial claims in the disputed area, US officials said Friday.

The rapid construction of artificial islands in the strategic waters comes to 2,000 acres (800 hectares), with 75 percent of the total in the last five months, officials said.

"China has expanded the acreage on the outposts it occupies by some four hundred times," said a US defense official.

The United States did not endorse land reclamation by any of the countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea, but "the pace and scale of China's land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant," the official said.

The South China Sea is home to strategically vital shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas. Washington is concerned China's efforts carry a military dimension that could undermine America's naval and economic power in the Pacific.

The commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, said in March that China is "creating a Great Wall of sand."


 Graphic on the disputed claims in the 
South China Sea (AFP Photo/)


US officials released the reclamation estimate as the Pentagon issued its annual report to Congress on the state of China's military, which repeated accusations that Beijing was staging cyber attacks to scoop up information on American defense programs.

The report also warned that China has made major strides with a range of satellites as well as anti-satellite jammers, saying it now had "the most dynamic space program in the world today."

China blasted the US report on Saturday, expressing opposition and accusing it of distorting facts.

"The US defense department’s report on China’s military and security development situation distorts facts and continues to play up the 'China military threat' cliché," Chinese defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

He made no direct mention of land reclamation in the South China Sea, but said China was justified in upholding its sovereignty in the area.


A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a 
Philippine supply boat engage in a stand 
off near the Second Th …


"The military build-up aims to maintain sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and guarantee China's peaceful development," Geng said.

Previous reports have noted China's focus on cyber and space weapons but this year's document included a special section on the country's massive dredging and island building in the strategic South China Sea.

At four reclamation sites, China has moved from dredging operations to "infrastructure development" that could include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics support and "at least one airfield," the report said.

The Chinese have excavated deep channels that could accommodate larger ships to the outposts, it said.

The ultimate purpose of the effort remains unclear but analysts outside China say Beijing is "attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea," the report said.



Satellite images of the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands - January 22, 2006 (top) and on Apri …
- Fiery Cross -

Unlike other countries making claims in the area, China at the moment does not have an airfield or "secure docking" at its outposts and the reclamation operations may be aimed at ending that disparity, it said.

The Pentagon report covered a period ending in December 2014 and it said China had reclaimed 500 acres in the disputed waters up to that point. But since then, China has conducted reclamation covering 1,500 acres, officials said.

Satellite images taken last month and shown on the website of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed Chinese island-building in several locations, including construction of a runway on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain, estimated at 3.1 kilometres (1.9 miles) in total and more than one-third complete at the time.

This week CSIS also unveiled images of Vietnamese island-building in the Spratlys.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea, including areas close to the coasts of other littoral states, using a nine-segment line based on one that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.

China has repeatedly defended its construction work as taking place within its own territory and intended to help with maritime search and rescue, navigation and research.

"The scale of China's construction work should be commensurate with its responsibility and obligation as a major country and meet actual needs," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing Friday, before the US comments.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims to the sea, but reclamation work by China's neighbors has proceeded at a slower pace. Vietnam has reclaimed about 60 acres of land since 2009 and Taiwan has reclaimed about five acres near Itu Aba island.


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West London Reef is pictured in the South China Sea in 2015, in this handout photo provided by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe. REUTERS/CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/Handout via Reuters

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - Newly released images show Vietnam has carried out significant land reclamation at two sites in the disputed South China Sea, though the scale and pace is dwarfed by that of China, a U.S. research institute said.

In response, China condemned Vietnam's actions, and said its work in the region was part of an obligation to the international community to improve navigation safety and contribute to science and research, including building observation platforms to monitor sea levels.

Satellite images shared with Reuters by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), show an expansion of the land area of Vietnamese-controlled Sand Cay and West London Reef in the Spratly archipelago and the addition of buildings.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of CSIS's Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (http://amti.csis.org/), said the work included military installations and appeared to have started before China began a flurry of reclamation projects last year.

The photographs were taken by satellite imagery firm

Digital Globe between 2010 and April 30 this year.

"On one site, it has constructed a significant new area that was formerly under water and at another it has used land reclamation to add acreage to an existing island," Rapp-Hoopersaid.

Vietnam's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but routinely says it has sufficient legal and historical evidence to support its claims in the Spratlys.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries had been carrying out such reclamations for a long time on what she said were Chinese islands being illegally occupied.

"We demand that the relevant countries stop all their activities which infringe upon China's sovereignty and rights," she told a daily news briefing.

INTERNATIONAL OBLIGATIONS
Hua added that China's building work was partly to better fulfill its international obligations, including as part of a deal agreed at a UNESCO meeting in Paris in 1987.

There, she said, China was entrusted to build five out of 200 sea level observation platforms, including on the Spratlys.

"The scale of China's construction should be commensurate with its responsibilities and obligations as a major country," Hua added.

The speed of recent Chinese reclamation work has alarmed its neighbors and the United States, which sees it as a potential threat to the status quo in a region through which $5 trillion of sea-borne trade passes each year.

China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

New Vietnamese military facilities at Sand Cay appeared to include defensive positions and gun emplacements, and new buildings visible on West London Reef could also have military applications, Rapp-Hooper said.

"Strictly speaking, these photos show that China is right, "she said, "but we can safely say that the scope and scale of what China has undertaken is totally unprecedented and dwarfs Vietnam's activities many times over."

She said the images showed Vietnam had reclaimed about65,000 square meters (699,654 square feet) of land at West London Reef and 21,000 square meters (226,042 square feet) at Sand Cay. This compared to 900,000 square meters (9.6 million square feet) reclaimed by China at a single reef, Fiery Cross.

Rapp-Hooper said satellite images showed that since about March 2014, China had conducted reclamation work at seven site sin the Spratlys and was constructing a military-sized air strip on one artificial island and possibly a second on another.

She said Vietnam already had an airstrip on the Spratlys.

The U.S. State Department said it had "consistently called on all claimants, including Vietnam, to avoid taking unilateral actions that raise tensions, such as large-scale land reclamation, in disputed areas."

A department spokesperson said the pace and scale of China’s recent reclamation work far outstripped that of other claimants.

The official said that before January 2014, China had only reclaimed about five hectares, but this had since soared to 2,000 acres (800 hectares), expanding the acreage on outposts it occupies by over four hundred times. Vietnam had reclaimed about 60 acres (24 hectares) since January 2009, the official said.

U.S. President Barack Obama last month accused China of" flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims and Washington has been helping countries in the region, including Vietnam, strengthen their defense capabilities.


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