Despite Objections, China’s Land Reclamation Difficult to Deter

Protesters demonstrate outside Chinese consular offices against South China Sea land reclamation. Manila, the Philippines, April 17, 2015. (Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued one of its strongest statements yet on China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea, saying Beijing’s actions had “eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability” in the region. This followed months of massive and rapid “island building” that has alarmed nearby countries and the wider international community. It has become clear that the activities are well-calculated and difficult to deter. And, despite ASEAN’s recent protests, a coherent and effective strategy has not emerged to manage the situation.

Reclamation has been a high priority for China since July of last year, when it withdrew the China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig from near Triton Island, where it had been used to pursue territorial claims against Vietnam. Since then, the contentious practice has constituted Beijing’s most important strategic maneuver in the heavily disputed waters, which are shared by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, as well as Vietnam.

Within a period of months, China has created entirely new “islands” on a number of reefs in the Spratly Islands, including Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reefs, Johnson South Reef, and Hughes Reef. Last month, United States Commander of the Pacific Fleet Harry Harris reported that Chinese reclamation efforts in the area had created more than four square kilometers of artificial landmass. The speed, scale, and effectiveness of these operations have surprised many.

Beijing is yet to clearly articulate the direct linkage between its policy of creating new islands and the controversial “nine-dashed line” by which it claims the vast majority of the South China Sea. There is, however, a widely shared belief that China intends to use the new land to reinforce sovereignty claims and therefore access to resources and sites of strategic military importance. Beijing’s silence until now is likely well-calculated and motivated by a fear that it currently lacks a strong legal justification for its claims. As it currently stands, whatever claims China would make based on the nine-dashed line would only be counterproductive, solicit legal and political attacks, and undermine its standing.

The legal implications of land reclamation activities are indeed highly debatable. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea specifies that an island has to be “a naturally formed area of land,” therefore China’s artificial constructions would not generate the maritime rights it may be seeking. Most notably, these would include 12-nautical mile territorial waters and 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones. In addition, any arbitration or negotiation over disputed territory should arguably be based on the original state of such disputes, and changes to the status quo due to any party’s unilateral moves should carry no legal weight. In the similar case of China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the US State Department clearly stated that “unilateral attempts to change the status quo raise tensions and do nothing under international law to strengthen territorial claims.”

Nevertheless, if China’s land reclamation has zero real impact, it would not have created so much concern among the other parties involved, primarily the members of ASEAN. Besides the legal consideration, there is clearly a high degree of power politics at play. China has made effective use of its overwhelming civilian and military power relative to other nearby nations and, regardless of the legality of its activities, it has become increasingly difficult for these neighbors to challenge Beijing’s de facto control of the area. While they could rally together to fight a legal battle and politically condemn China’s approach, this would not change the fact that the balance of power in the South China Sea is being changed in China’s favor.

In this sense, there is a resemblance to China’s activities in the East China Sea, including the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone to establish “administration” of the disputed territory. Here, China has again ignored the questionable political and legal justification of its actions, while still managing to strengthen its claims. Beijing has also considered itself to have successfully established “co-administration” of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with Japan, regardless of whether the term is accepted by Tokyo, or Washington for that matter.

Some have assessed China’s land reclamation as counterproductive and possessing only limited strategic utilities. They point out that it jeopardizes its relationship with countries in the region and that the new areas of land will be vulnerable to destruction in the event of natural disasters or military conflicts. China is aware of these risks, but is willing to take them so long as it is achieving its aims. Besides, damaged international ties can be mended in many other ways, such as economic enticements, while the strategic utilities of the new islands lie more in deterrence and power projection against deployment from its neighbors, and their ally the US.

All this leads to the important question of what kind of strategy might help lower the current tensions. It is clear that ASEAN’s recent statement will not be sufficient in this respect, and Beijing has already dismissed it, claiming that the “South China Sea is not an issue between China and ASEAN.”

An option would be to return to the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed between China and ASEAN in 2002. The US had this in mind when it last year called for all countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea to “agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability as described in the Declaration of Conduct.”

There appears little hope of this resulting, however. The ASEAN members have so far been unable to reach an agreement on what a freeze would involve, and even if they could, it remains highly doubtful that China would agree to the same measures. Enforcing such a non-binding, voluntary agreement would also require a resolve and allocation of resources that the US is currently unable to commit.

While all parties involved remain alert to the threat of the land reclamation activities, no one has presented an alternative of a feasible and potentially effective collective strategy to manage them. China, meanwhile, has identified the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the positions of the US and other countries. In fact, a popular joke in the country has even developed around this topic, along the lines of “since the next US administration will certainly be tough on China, we should work as fast as possible to get what we can in the South China Sea before 2017.”

It is clear that dealing with the well-calculated and well-planned land reclamation activities will require serious resolve and better coordination from all countries involved. Without this, the world at large will simply need to get used to the site of more and more islands emerging from the South China Sea.

Yun Sun is a Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center.