|Land Reclamation: A South China Sea Game Changer|
|Part 2: Land Reclamation: A South China Sea Game Changer|
On a brighter side, it might be argued that possession of large islands with sophisticated military and civilian facilities that could cater to all its needs would decrease the incentives for China to attack islands controlled by others.
Different from other claimants’ presence on the Spratlys, which is aimed at demonstrating effective administration of their currently controlled islands by maintaining airstrips that can assist in supplying those islands, China’s expanded military presence there could serve to enhance Chinese power projection capability in, if not control of, the South China Sea. The web of Chinese military bases in the South China Sea, connecting Sanya Island in the north to Woody Island in the Paracels in the west to new unsinkable aircraft carriers in Fiery Cross, Johnson South, Cuateron and Gaven Reefs in the Spratlys in the center and the south, and possible bases in the Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in the east, will enhance Chinese capability to enforce an air defense identification zone above the South China Sea if and when established, harass U.S. military activities in and above the sea, hunt for American submarines, place Australia within Chinese strategic bombers’ range for the first time, and control or at least send a deterrent message of Chinese capability in blocking the critical energy supply routes from the Middle East to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
From an international law perspective, commentators have already highlighted that China’s reclamation works constitutes a breach of international agreements, which require all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake unilateral actions that would permanently change the status quo regarding the disputed areas. Insofar as Chinese dredging and constructing activities are damaging the coral system in the Spratlys, they are also indicative of China’s disregard for ‘duty to cooperate’ with other environmentally affected States. Furthermore, these activities are inconsistent with the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls on all parties to refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate the disputes. In presenting others states with a new fair accompli during the negotiation for an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – one of the main purposes of which is to keep the status quo of the South China Sea, China is dashing any hope for a meaningful document that can help govern this troubled maritime area.
So far, three countries – Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States – have protested China’s reclamation activities, but clearly diplomatic protests alone have little impact on China’s will and calculations. A Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry official has bluntly stated that China can carry out whatever construction in the reefs that are within its “sovereignty.”
Given the enormous stakes at peril and a wide range of affected parties, a concerted effort by all littoral states and stakeholders is more than urgent to prevent this common sea from permanently becoming anybody’s lake before it is all too late.
Tran Truong is a research fellow and director of the Center for East Sea (South China Sea) Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV). Before joining the DAV, he worked in the European Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam and has published extensively on maritime issues.