U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands
By Gordon Lubold And Adam Entous
By Gordon Lubold And Adam Entous
American officials concerned that building boom signals more aggressive territorial claims by China in the region
A photo provided by the Philippines last month shows construction by China at a reef in the disputed Spratley Islands in the South China Sea in February. Photo: armed forces of the philippines/European Pressphoto Agency
American officials have determined that in the past five months alone, China has expanded the artificial islands on submerged reefs known as the Spratlys fourfold to as much as 2,000 acres of land, a senior U.S. official said Friday.
The U.S. had estimated that China before this year had built as many as 500 acres of land by “reclaiming” natural materials like sand and dirt through dredging to create the islands where none existed before.
The new estimate underscores U.S. fears that Beijing is using the islands to build military airstrips and other facilities that China could then use to expand its territorial claims. It also comes as U.S. policy makers scramble to determine a way to respond to China’s muscle-flexing in the region. Long suspicious of Beijing’s ambitions, Washington has attempted to maintain a dialogue with Beijing and has been reluctant to create a new confrontation in Asia.
A Pentagon report released Friday reinforces the U.S. concerns. It found China has been busy constructing a network of islands as well as making a number of infrastructure improvements on several of them.
For example, at five sites, China is using heavy equipment to build facilities that U.S. officials suspect could be used for expanded outposts that could include harbors, house communications and surveillance systems as well as logistics-support hubs. Pentagon officials are aware of at least one 3,000-yard airfield that analysts say is halfway paved.
“The ultimate purpose of the expansion projects remains unclear and the Chinese government has stated these projects are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands,” according to the Pentagon report, titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015” and compiled at the request of Congress.
However, the report noted, “Most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea.”
The Pentagon report covered a period up to December 2014, when officials had assessed that China had constructed islands totaling 500 acres.
The finding China has expanded the new construction this year to 2,000 acres was confirmed by officials independently.
Chinese officials in the past have dismissed complaints about the island-building, saying Beijing is entitled to undertake construction projects within its own sovereign territory. On Friday, the country’s embassy in Washington reiterated that stand. “The relevant construction, which is reasonable, justified and lawful, is well within China’s sovereignty. It does not impact or target any country and is thus beyond reproach,” spokesman Zhu Haiquan said in an email.
Mr. Zhu said the Chinese government has been carrying out maintenance and construction work on some of the garrisoned islands and reefs with several purposes in mind. Those include improving living and working conditions on the islands, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and helping China fulfill international responsibilities in a number of areas, such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, as well as environmental protection and navigation safety, he said.
Beijing’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea may force Washington to address the issue more directly, defense analysts say. There already have been some signs of that. In recent weeks, U.S. military leaders have begun using sharper rhetoric when describing China’s assertion of its claims in the South China Sea.
The U.S. has begun to adopt a so-called name-and-shame approach, carefully calling out Beijing for its activities, even as officials remain perplexed about how best to respond. American pleas to Beijing to stop the construction of the islands have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the U.S. Pacific Command chief, told a congressional panel last month that construction of the islands allows the Chinese to exert greater influence over the disputed area and could lead to Chinese deployments of air and land assets, to include radar and missile systems, to make its territorial claims.
The issue is expected to top the list of agenda items at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a security forum in Singapore, to be attended by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, later this month.
The U.S. doesn’t recognize any claims to islands that are artificially formed, according to a Pentagon official. “Under international law, an island is a naturally formed feature and it is specifically says in international law that an artificial island isn't entitled to a territorial sea,” according to a Defense Department official.
Meanwhile, new satellite images released this week showed that China isn’t the only country doing construction in the region. Vietnam, a U.S. ally, has also been building on two other sites. Imagery taken as recently as April 30 shows that Vietnam, known to have constructed such islands in the past, has built on at least two islands, known as West London Reef and Sand Cay, representing a total of about 85,000 square meters, or roughly 21 square acres.
The projects under construction include trenches and potential gun emplacements, according to the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies and by DigitalGlobe, which released the images Thursday. The visual evidence of Vietnam’s construction on reefs in the area shows for the first time that Beijing isn't the only country asserting itself in the South China Sea, analysts said.
“While it is clear that Vietnam has claimed some land features, it is also clear that the scope and scale pales in comparison to China’s,” said Mira Rapp-Hopper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “While we have found evidence that Vietnam has reclaimed two features, China has reclaimed seven.”
China’s construction activity is more recent than Vietnam’s, Rapp-Hopper said. “It’s a much bigger set of projects, more features, and a much shorter timeline,” she said.
While concerning, the work Vietnam has done in the South China Sea is nothing compared with that of what China is up to, a defense official said.
“We do not support South China Sea land reclamation efforts by any party,” the official said by email. “However, the pace and scale of China’s land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant. China has expanded the acreage on the outposts it occupies by some four hundred times.”