South China Sea: New Developments
It is known that China has been piling sand onto the reefs of the South China Sea, this leading to the creation of seven new islets in the region. The geopolitical tensions that marked the past months are already familiar to the general public. The speed and spree at which China’s island building was done, was alarming other countries that have interests in the region. China eventually announced back in June that the creation of the islands would soon be completed.
Over the last two years, China has dredged almost 3,000 acres of sand and seven underwater features, creating new artificial islands. The rapid pace of construction caught much of the US government and analytical community off-guard; at the same time capturing mainstream attention only this year, after the US began publishing vivid satellite imagery demonstrating the unprecedented scope and China’s land reclamation work.
Ever since the creation of the islands, China has focused its efforts on construction – building port facilities, military buildings, and an airstrip on the islands. The recent imagery that had been collected shows evidence of two more airstrips being constructed. It seems that the activity of China in the Spratlys Islands is regarded as a major point of contention between China and the United States, being a primary topic of discussion that was carried out during the visit of the Chinese President to the White House back in September.
The former director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mira Rapp-Hooper, stated that China’s efforts serve more to fortify its territorial claims than to help it extract natural resources. Even though the islands are too small to be able to support large military units, the islands will enable sustained Chinese air and sea patrols of the area. As far as the US involvement is concerned, the country has reported spotting Chinese mobile artillery vehicles in the region, and the islands could allow China to exercise more control over the fishing activities taking place in the region.
The reefs that have been destroyed now serve as a foundation for the building of new islands. The main problem is that the process of building these new islands causes damage to a great extent to the surrounding marine ecosystem, being regarded as a natural hazard. According to the specialists, the building process will cause pollution to the area, as heavy metals, oil, along with very dangerous chemicals will be disposed in the water. All of these elements are threatening the stability of the ecosystem along with the quality of the water and reefs.
When it comes to the issue of island building, it is known that China was among the latecomers, and currently, the country is feeling left out of the whole process, even though the pace of island building of the Chinese is known to have outpaced similar efforts in the area. China managed to unsettle the United States, as the last mentioned is known to have about $1.2 trillion in bilateral trade to go through the waters of South China Sea every year.
Last week, the United States sent the Lassen navy destroyer near the islands, entering the disputed waters. On top of that, the Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter criticized the Chinese actions, at the same time, supporting the freedom of the United States to operate in their desired places, as the international law allows. The last time the United States sent ships or aircraft near the islands was in 2012, according to David Shear, a top pentagon Official in charge with the Asia and the Pacific.
On the other hand, the countries surrounding the area think it is unfair that China will occupy such a large portion of the territories, as it is known that Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have all expanded islands in the Spratlys. For China, the Fiery Cross Reef is the most strategically significant new island, with an airstrip that is long enough to allow China to land any plane, from fighter jets to large transport aircraft. But China’s airstrip is not the first in the region — every other country that occupies the Spratlys already operates one as well.
In recent months, China almost completed two of its largest island building projects, at Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. The imagery that is available at this time shows that China started building airstrips on long, straight sections of each of those islands, which would allow access to the country to other three airstrips.
Lately, the United States said that it plans to return to the contested areas of the South China Sea. One US official told Reuters that similar patrols would take place at least „twice a quarter” in the area. According to the statements of the officials, the presence of the USS Lassen is just one of the many „demonstrations of interest” that will take place in the area.
Tensions have escalated in the resource-rich South China Sea in recent years, where several countries have overlapping maritime claims, as China has steadily expanded and consolidated its presence. China, which claims a wide swathe of the sea, has been reclaiming land around reefs and constructing airstrips and buildings. The US and other countries have called for the halt of such activities, accusing it of militarisation, but China has insisted that the construction is for civilian purposes.