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For Hearth and Home: Land Reclamation in the South China Sea by Anirudh Rao

C3S Paper No. 0106/ 2015


Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez of the Philippines Navy declared in a senate meeting on the 7th of May that in the three months that had preceded the meeting, they had received radio communication from the Chinese, warning them that they were in a secure military zone.[i] This incident is one among many acts of overt aggression by China specifically as concerns the South China Sea. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea could soon be an area of considerable conflict for parties both near and far. Apart from the Spratly Islands, the Pratas Islands and the Paracel Islands are two other island groups that are contained in the South China Sea that are also points of contention between China and the ASEAN countries. Claims that are made on the Spratly islands are mostly historic in nature, with countries claiming that the islands were used by their ancestors for strategic advantage and thus they were entitled to it. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), if it is to apply in this case, which it should, means that the Philippines could make a very strong case for itself when it comes to the Spratly islands since it’s littoral regions are the most contiguous to them. Signed in 1982 and coming into force in 1994, the UNCLOS declares zones that emanate from the mainland of sovereign states. These zones are divided as follows (from most contiguous to the most remote): Internal Waters, Territorial Waters, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the Continental Shelf.[ii] Different degrees of exclusivity of access and codes of law apply to these different regions, and in general they get less strict the farther away from the shore of a state that you are, with even light surveillance being allowed in the EEZ of littoral states. The distance to which an EEZ extends from the littoral state is 200 Nautical Miles as defined by the UNCLOS which has been ratified by 166 different countries as of 2015. The UNCLOS was drafted quite specifically for the purpose of settling disputes between states on claims of resources and the right of passage in the territory of others and the ending of what was the “Law of the Sea” which was quite honestly a euphemism for anything goes.

zones of UNCLOS

Figure 1- Visualization of Zones as Demarcated by UNCLOS                                                                                                          Source:

Genesis of the South China Sea Conflict

The Spratly Islands are claimed by all the major actors in the region, this includes: Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, China and even Brunei. China’s claim originates in the fracas that followed the end of World War II and the resulting humiliation of Japan. China recovered territory that they had previously lost to Imperial Japan and the then ruling party, the nationalist KMT, published the map of the South China Sea, with a 11 dash- line to demarcate the region that it claimed as its own by historic right. The KMT after the revolution, from its new base in Taiwan continued the claim, and the 1947 map is still the reason for the Republic of China’s (ROC/ Taiwan) claim on the Spratly Islands, not to mention the Paracel and the Pratas Island groupings.[iii] Vietnam too laid claim to the Spratly Island and this led to them establishing 25 bases in the diffused island grouping. The 1988 conflict over the Johnson South Reef which resulted in the death of a considerable number of Vietnamese security forces and Coast Guard officials resulted in a Chinese take- over of the “base”. Another flash- point in the region was the HD- 981 rig controversy in 2014, which resulted in an uproar in Vietnam over the incursion of China in what the country considered it’s sovereign right (to the Paracel Islands).This was the recognition of what would become a new theatre of attrition that the Chinese would open up to expand their influence in the region.

South china sea map- nine dash line

Figure 2- The Disputed Cluster of Islands in the South China Sea                                                                     Source:

Issue Salience

Peace and stability in the region is important for a number of reasons. Geo- political reasons for one, that include many American allies in the region. Both the Philippines and Japan both have American bases, which boast of Naval and Air ready capabilities. These are also the focal points of surveillance carried out in the region by America, in tandem with both Japan and the Philippines. This, coupled with material realties of trade is why Hillary Clinton declared that the United States had “national” interest in the region and were for freedom of navigation, during her tenure as Secretary of State under President Obama.[iv] This statement is actually what sent off alarm bells, since the United States had always maintained that it was for bi- lateral and multi- lateral resolution of issues of sovereignty and land reclamation in the region. They had toed the line so as to not put China into a corner and further the paranoia that the Chinese feel towards the Cold War era strategy of containment, but trade considerations seem to have won out. $5 Trillion Dollars of trade moves through the South China Sea every year and about 14 Million barrels of crude oil, by estimates, move through the route everyday (The Malacca straits are one of the major choke- points for the shipment of oil, only second to the Strait of Hormuz).[v] Countries are highly expectant of the ruling that is expected by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the ruling body that according to the UNCLOS will arbitrate on matters that pertain to the convention. The ruling will be on papers submitted by Philippines, with a surprising backing by Vietnam, about the actions of China in the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands in specific. Though the ITLOS has declared that it will not pass judgments on matters of “sovereignty”, the judgment will still carry some weight, with countries that decide to go against it taking a gamble on international perceptions. A regional consideration for the wealth of nations that make up the South East Asian region is the fact that the South China Sea has an estimate 190 Trillion Cubic Feet of natural gas and 11 Billion Barrels of oil, as noted by a report by the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA).[vi] These reserves are distributed under the 3 island groupings in the area. This is also the reason behind the HD- 981 stand- off between Vietnam and China.

oil shipping lanes- choke points

Figure 3- Oil Choke- Points in the World                                                                                                                                                       Source:

Geo- political considerations as mentioned before are a major part of the struggle for control of both land and resources in the South China Sea. While some countries might decide to toe the line and bandwagon with larger neighbours who do happen to be regional hegemons, according to classical international relations theory, there is another option and that is power balancing. The South China Sea conflict and the members of the ASEAN countries seem to be involved in a contentious balancing bid against their much larger neighbour. At first glance it might seem like economic considerations are not enough to stop countries from squabbling, but we only need to see trade figures between China, the United States and India go up year after year to see that economically, relations have not been impacted. This is a characteristic of the Post- Cold War where countries have gotten much better at compartmentalizing their relations with each other. While they do recognize the fact that each of them cannot seen to be ineffectual and complacent in the face of what seems like a precarious global situation, they still manage to ensure that economic relations are not severed. Thus, while the American’s and India continue to have strong economic ties with China, their tone when speaking of land reclamation in the South China Sea and increasing intolerance by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), seems to be on a teleological trajectory to condemnation. Anil Wadhwa’s statement on the need for freedom of navigation, who was Secretary East for the Ministry of External Affairs, in early 2014 (under the UPA II regime) does not seem to have changed with the BJP government taking over in mid- 2014.[vii] This coupled with the clarification by Admiral Harry Harris Jr. in early 2015 on the need for India to be more forceful in her forays in international waters seems to be a shifting of rhetoric from conciliatory to firm. Another point of interest is his statement on the game plan for the United States going forward. Specifically, his statement on the fact that he sees up to 60 percent of the US Navy being part of Pacific Fleet by 2020.[viii]

Gaining Ground in the South China Sea

The Spratly islands, which cover an area of 1,300 acres, thus far have been the sub- section of the region that has seen the most amount of controversy at least in the near past. Beginning towards the end of 2014, China stepped up its land reclamation claims and IHS Jane’s Defence reported the building of an artificial island on the Fiery Cross Reef and what looked to be the beginnings of a landing strip.[ix] This was corroborated with satellite imagery and accounts of the actions of the Chinese in their reclamation of these reefs. Philippines has challenged the actions of China by pointing out that the Spratly Islands are 1,300 Km’s from the Chinese Mainland and that China cannot claim the mandated 200 Nautical Miles of EEZ or even 12 Nautical Miles of protected Territorial Zone, even if their claim to them is to be ratified. Chinese officials have been both conciliatory and confrontational when commenting on statements by ASEAN officials on the developments in the South China Sea. While taking cognizance of the “concerns” of ASEAN, they have also laid blame on Philippines for both constructing on the Spratly Islands and for the recent detaining of Chinese fisherman, who according to Filipino officials were poaching water turtles, and the ASEAN secretary Mr. Le Luong Minh for being an un- biased observer of the situation and going after the Chinese.[x] The Fiery Cross Reef air- strip is projected to be 3,000 m long, which would put it in the range of military- grade air- strips in China which measure anywhere between 2,700 m – 4,000 m. This would allow the Chinese to land even their heaviest military transport vehicles. Points of major concern for the Philippines is the construction on the Mischief and the Subi/ Subei reef’s that are 216 Km and 25 Km from Filipino outreaches respectively.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a paper through its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on land reclamation in the Spratly Islands by Vietnam. It described and corroborated with satellite imagery, construction undertaken by Vietnam on both the Sand Cay and the West London Reef.[xi] Thayer, in his analysis of the situation described the Vietnamese structures in the South China Sea as both non- threatening (Read: defensive) in nature and that they were perfectly in line with the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) which was jointly signed by ASEAN countries and China in 2002.[xii]

spratly islands- reef map

Figure 4- Map of Conflict over Reefs in the Spratly Islands                                                                                                                Source:

As of February 2015, 6 different reefs had been completed, of which the Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef seem to be of primary importance to the Chinese. China seems primed to begin a more thorough procedure of bringing together these different elements in the region, since there seems to be a pattern behind these outposts. Members of ASEAN and America have expressed concern that the behaviour of China in the region could affect regional stability and economic relations between the nations. Almost every country, except for the Philippines have a trade deficit with China and them protesting Chinese actions could result in punishment being wrought on them. China on its part has maintained that these outposts that it has established in the region are for providing logistical assistance to exploratory teams navigators of any and all nationalities, since typhoons are an actual concern in the area. This is why, officials claim, the outposts have medical facilities. It has of course been pointed out that the outposts also have fuel depots, cement silos, aprons and ports. The latter, according to security advisors could mean that China’s vision of a blue- water navy could be realized by as early as 2050. Another concern that has been elucidated by the American’s is that the South China constructions could be one step in a plan that involves China moving to declare the South China Sea as an Air Defence Identification Zone (AIDZ), like they previously have done in the East China Sea. An AIDZ requires every aircraft that travels through it to identify itself to the authority, even though the legality of it could of course be called into question. This would severely impede ease of access to regions, for exploratory and navigator purposes, not to mention that the South China Sea trade route could be impacted by this move.

gavin reef satellite image

Figure 5- Gavin Reef from March 31st 2014 to November 11th, 2014                                                                                                      Source: taken from CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS/ HIS

Frameworks for Conflict Resolution

These conflicts of the South China Sea are myriad. Conflict resolution in a situation involving a regional hegemon and its smaller neighbours is always going to be a challenge. An additional problem in this case is that there are no institutional safe guards that seem to have worked. A primary fire-wall in the region against conflict and which countries thought would lead to arbitration was the DOC. It stated that there would be no moves that would be made on previously un- occupied islands, reefs and/or coral shoals. Ironically, one reason it might have been agreed upon is that it is a non- binding agreement and there are no “real” repercussions for countries that violate it, as most all countries who were party to it have.[xiii] The UNCLOS is one framework in which much of the land reclamation conflict could be worked out, but the essential problem is that both the United States and China are working to further their interest in the area at the cost of smaller players who do not have the soft power or hard power to ensure their safety when it comes to issues that are actually salient to them. American intelligence gathering in the region has been a bone of contention for the Chinese. The Hainan incident, in 2001,[xiv] the USS Impeccable incident in 2009 and the HD- 981 incident in 2014 are also worrying indicators of how far the Chinese are willing to go. In all of these incidents the Chinese have shown that they can and will resort to open faced threats and harassment of official units and convoys. As mentioned earlier, the ruling by the ITLOS is expected to be an important mile- stone on the road to the resolution of this conflict since it would state conclusively, the legitimacy of claims by different countries when it comes to the coral shoals and island groupings in the South China Sea. Though some feel that the case, as presented by Philippines is shaky. For example, Philippines contests how China, even if it did have a claim to the area encircled by the nine- dash line, could lay claim to certain parts of the Spratly Islands since, according to them, most of it is rock and could not possibly count as land, and laying claim to your sovereign right to a rock does seem ludicrous. Regardless, the ruling will also possibly elucidate the rights of countries to the resources that exist in their EEZ, or more specifically drilling for oil on their continental shelf. This ties in with the larger narrative of energy considerations and what is considered shrinking oil reserves, with even Saudi Arabian oil fields being stretched thing. Additionally, price fluctuations in oil means that states will begin to take into their own hands to ensure that their reserves will be built up to a level where they can weather the storm, both logistically and economically. The American side of this story also ties into the larger narrative of the Asia pivot. With Obama having promised only air strike and consulting support for Iraq and Syria in their war against ISIS, the pivot finally seems to be materialising. Of course, this will only come to pass as long as America can keep from deploying boots on the ground in the increasingly volatile Middle- East. The stance that America has taken thus far in the South China Sea issue (Read: Non- Confrontational) could also change considerably with the coming presidential election, and punters in Vegas are calling a more hawkish United States, which could mean a more hard- line stance when it comes to China, if campaign speeches are anything to go by.[xv]

Back to the Future

The South China Sea conflict has not reached its logical conclusion and the nature of the conflict makes it tough for arbitration to arrive at a precise conclusion. Charges filed by Philippines against the nine- dash line claim by China still stand deliberation. Vietnam and Malaysia are among the countries who have also filed alongside the Philippines in their stand against the regional out- reaches of the Chinese. It is doubtful that the case will go the way of the Chinese since the ground that they stand on is fairly shaky. That being said, Philippines and Vietnam have also undertaken construction projects in the Spratly Islands, but as mentioned before their moves of a strategic nature cannot be construed to be of a “threatening nature”. Additionally, another reason why the legitimacy of China’s actions could be questioned is the proportionality of reclamation. Thayer, estimates that Vietnamese land reclamation amounts to 1.9 % China’s claims.[xvi] This struggle for regional power is also a sump for international influence. India and its relationship with Vietnam will also play into this, since India has promised support in terms of defence acquisition. This means of balancing against China is also sure to irritate the Chinese. America too has a stake in the region, because as stated previously, both Philippines and Japan are allies. The Middle Kingdom might very well be a castle in the sky, but the artificial islands are very real and for the time being are here to stay.

[i] Business Insider. “China is ordering Philippine military planes to get away from disputed areas of the South China Sea”, May 7th, 20015,

[ii] The United Nations. “United National Convention on the Law of the Sea: Part II”, United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea,

[iii] Centre for Strategic and International Studies, “A Role for Taiwan in Promoting Peace in the South China Sea” by Bobbie S. Glaser, CSIS, April 15th, 2014,

[iv] The New York Times. “Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands” by Mark Lander, July 23rd, 2010,

[v] U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 7th, 2013,

[vi] Ibid. iv

[vii] The Diplomat. “India’s Got a Plan For South China Sea Disputes (And China Won’t Like It)” by Ankit Panda, March 11th, 2015,

[viii] NDTV. “In South China Sea Row, Top US Commander Roots for India” by Vishnu Som, March 4th, 2015,

[ix] IHS Jane’s 360. “China Building Airstrip- Capable Island on Fiery Cross Reef” by James Hardy and Sean o’ Connor, 20th November, 2014,

[x] Reuters. “China slams ASEAN chief for South China Sea comments” by Ben Blanchard, March 11th, 2015,

[xi] Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Sandcastles of Their Own: Vietnamese Expansion in the Spratly Islands” by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative,

[xii] Australian Chamber of Commerce. “Background Briefing: South China Sea: Vietnam’s

Land Reclamation 1.9%” by Carl A. Thayer, May 9th, 2015,

[xiii] Association of South- East Asian Nations. “Declaration On The Conduct Of Parties In The South China Sea”,

[xiv] A mid- air collision between a United States EP-3 intelligence aircraft and a PLAN Jet resulted in an ugly war of diplomacy between the Chinese and the American’s.

[xv] The Diplomat. “Why the Next US President Should Pivot to the South China Sea” by Thuc D. Pham, May 5th, 2015,

[xvi] Ibid. xii

(Anirudh Rangarajan is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of his academic course in The Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (Pune), he is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S.  The views expressed in this article  however are of the author. He can be reached at

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