Aerial photograph showing recent harbor developments on Duncan Island, which is claimed by the People’s Republic of China
At a time when many island nations are faced with the possibility of submergence in a few decades as sea levels rise due to global warming, it appears that in at least one area of the world new islands are popping up at an alarming rate. Beginning last year, China began expanding the few islands it controls in the South China Sea, as well as constructing entirely new ones on top of reefs and shoals by transferring sand from nearby areas, creating what has been dubbed “the Great Wall of Sand” by the commander of the US Pacific Fleet. This practice will in time allow China to bolster its claims to more than 90% of the South China Sea (famously marked with a nine-dash line on Chinese maps), increase its military force projection capabilities throughout the region, and increase its access to energy resources and trade routes in the area.
Currently, Chinese maritime territorial claims conflict with claims made by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan. The severity of disagreements over these areas ranges, and the only deadly conflict occurred in 1988 between China and Vietnam. With China’s actions increasing the likelihood of further conflict, many have sought to understand why China is constructing these new islands and expanding upon existing islands and rocks.
One theory is that these expansions could allow China to claim many new exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around the islands. However, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” This means that even if Beijing has a lawful claim to a rock in the middle of the South China Sea, it cannot legally use the area surrounding said rock to pursue its interests if that area is within the EEZ of an inhabited island claimed by another country.
Therefore, because of this stipulation and another one stating that islands must be naturally occurring, it is unlikely that China will try to work through the framework of the EEZs. Furthermore, doing this would contradict an earlier Chinese policy regarding the implementation of UNCLOS. In 2009 and 2011, China claimed that Japan could not seek to claim the EEZ of a rock in the East China Sea. Rather than using international law, China is essentially trying to pull off a fait accompli by enhancing military projection capabilities that will in turn allow it to control vast resources and important trade routes.
Indeed, several of the islands have runways or helipads to increase the reach of Chinese air power, and many others have military facilities to support naval forces and “large numbers of troops.” While an open confrontation is unlikely, these forces are used to intimidate foreign countries trying to operate within waters claimed by China. For example, China is currently blockading a Filipino military outpost on a shoal that the Philippines claims is within its EEZ, but is also claimed by China. By being able to directly station forces in the South China Sea and not have to rely on deploying them from the mainland, China’s ability to enforce its territorial claims in the region will increase while other countries will not be powerful enough to provide a deterrent to China and counterbalance China in areas of conflicting claims.
The most important reason why China is expanding its geographic and military presence, though, is for economic reasons. As China continues to grow in population and economic weight, it is projected to have twice the energy demand of the United States and three times those of the European Union by 2035. It is therefore logical that China try to establish hegemony in the South China Sea, an area that contains 7.7 billion barrels of oil and an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Additionally, having an increased naval presence in the region would allow China to better implement its “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative, as well as to control strategic sea passages through which vast amounts of energy resources are shipped daily. By increasing its military presence and asserting its territorial rights, China is also trying to fortify its position to deny the US Navy the ability to effectively operate in the area and in the process gain superior access to energy resources and trade routes.
However, despite the obvious challenges this poses to the US and its strategy of rebalancing to Asia, the Obama administration has been relatively silent on the issue. Even though there is a risk of strategic miscalculations by Beijing or Washington which could have potentially disastrous results, the only high-ranking US official to have commented directly on the island building is Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, who called upon China to halt the construction. This is despite frequent statements by US Navy officials and a recent letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry from the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees to take greater measures to halt China’s reclamation activities.
The basic logic behind China’s nine-dash line justification for reclamation, that the territory historically belonged to China at some point, is preposterous and would open up a Pandora ’s Box of territorial disputes across the world. If other countries use the same reasoning, then China itself could be claimed by Mongolia, which controlled China during the 13th century. It is therefore important that the US, though not a party to UNCLOS, cooperates with other countries to ensure that the likelihood of conflict is mitigated to the greatest extent possible and international law is adhered to.
China, for its part, should work through established international mechanisms if it believes it has a legitimate territorial claim over a certain area. However, this does not seem to be the path China is taking. As China continues its island reclamation, bolstering its power projection capabilities in the region, it is threatening the regional status quo and creating an atmosphere in which a strategic miscalculation by any party could easily result in violent conflict.
Matt McGee is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in China and Asia-Pacific Studies and Government.