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South China Sea: Assessing China’s Land Reclamation Activities By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0061/ 2015


We request your assessment of a report by Jane’s Defense Weekly on January 15th on China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea. We request your assessment of the following issues:

Q1. How do you assess China’s land reclamation or creation of artificial islands in the Spratlys?

ANSWER: China’s land reclamation activities to create artificial islands are bold in strategic conception. They reinforce China’s efforts to claim sovereignty over all the islands, rocks and other features in the South China Sea and their “adjacent waters” embraced in its nine-dash line claim. The creation of artificial islands will establish a Chinese presence in the heart of the South China Sea and thus redraw the geographical boundaries of Southeast Asia. In 1995, when ASEAN adopted the Treaty on the South East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ), it defined Southeast Asia’s geographic scope as including “the area comprising the territories of all States in Southeast Asia, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and their respective continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)… “territory” means the land territory, internal waters, territorial sea, archipelagic waters, the seabed and the sub-soil thereof and the airspace above them [emphasis added].” China has since expanded its control over areas of the South China Sea using maritime law enforcement vessels to annex Scarborough Shoal, to invest in a military sense Second Thomas Shoal, and by pushing its fishing fleet further south into Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in addition to the EEZ’s of Vietnam and the Philippines.

Q2. Are you surprised by the pace and the magnitude of the work done by China as reported by IHS Jane’s Defense?

ANSWER: China’s actions have taken most analysts by surprise. Up until last year most reports on Chinese activities focused on relatively minor construction activities. But from 2014 the scope and speed of China’s land reclamation activities has been breathtaking. Thayer Consultancy ABN # 65 648 097 123 2

Q3. Vietnam has also built infrastructure on the reefs it controls. Can we compare the work made by Vietnam to China’s land reclamation?

ANSWER: Vietnam began construction on Truong Sa Lon and other features that it occupies before the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) was adopted. The airstrip on Truong Sa Lon is 700 metres long. Vietnam has also built minor defensive works on some of its features. The DOC does not prohibit such activities. Point 5 of the DOC states, “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner [emphasis added].” Analysts claim that one of China’s artificial islands will exceed the largest island, Itu Aba (or Taiping island) occupied by Taiwan. China’s islands will have a dual civilmilitary function. Docks on these islands will support People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates. The islands will also house a web of surveillance equipment including radar, signals and electronic intelligence equipment. China’s land reclamation activities are so extensive as to dwarf any comparison with Vietnamese-occupied features. China’s actions are a violation of the letter if not spirit of the DOC.

Q4. What are motives behind China’s land reclamation?

ANSWER: China’s ultimate strategic objective is to assert sovereignty and hence military control over the South China Sea to safeguard its sea lines of communication and to raise the risk to foreign navies, the United States in particular, of operating in a semi-enclosed sea. China’s artificial islands will be linked with other features that it presently occupies to provide early warning of the activities of non-Chinese naval and air forces. At a minimum, the artificial islands will be forward operating bases for Chinese commercial interests, such as fisheries and hydrocarbons, as well as for various Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies. They will be closer to potential hot spots and also they will be in a position to exert intimidation and coercion against regional coast guards. The artificial islands will provide a hedge against any adverse findings by the Arbitral Tribunal now hearing legal claims by the Philippines against China. Artificial islands are not covered by the legal proceeding.

Q5. According to you what is China’s most important objective?

ANSWER: China’s most important objective is to assert de facto control over the South China Sea by evading the constraints of international law. Eight of Southeast Asia’s ten states will be forced to deal with the new reality that they share a maritime boundary with China or that China has the ability to exert control over the South China Sea maritime domain – the heart of Southeast Asia.

Q6. What kind of threats do these new artificial islands an pose to Vietnam? 3

ANSWER: First, China’s actions pose an indirect threat to Vietnam by potentially isolating Vietnam through China’s cowing and dissuading other ASEAN member states from taking any political and diplomatic action against China. Second, China’s artificial islands extend China reach – both commercial and military – into the southern reaches of the South China Sea. China will be able to initiate action, or respond to local incidents, much more quickly than before. Vietnam will have decreased warning time to respond. For example, China could instigate a blockade of Vietnamese-occupied features in the South China Sea or it could suddenly occupy small Vietnamese outposts with little warning. Chinese forces could be sustained in these operations for longer periods of time through pre-positioning supplies and fuel as well as through the construction of maintenance and repair and medical facilities on these artificial islands.

Q7. What can Vietnam do?

ANSWER: Quite frankly there is little Vietnam or the international community can do to prevent China from continuing on its present course of land reclamation and construction on artificial islands. But Vietnam can attempt to influence (and perhaps alter) China’s intentions through robust diplomacy at bilateral and multilateral levels. Vietnamese leaders need to raise this issue frankly with their Chinese counterparts. Vietnam needs to mobilize support within ASEAN and the international maritime community. The best these efforts can achieve is to convince China to act with restraint and to be more transparent about its intentions. Vietnam could work more closely with the United States and other maritime powers to adopt a series of cost-imposition strategies. Possible cost-imposition strategies are being developed by the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Generally speaking, cost-imposition strategies seek to demonstrate to China that its actions will produce counter-reactions by other states that make it more difficult (and costly) for China to continue on its present course. China is faced with weighing the pros and cons of its actions.

Q8. Some analysts are pessimistic saying that nothing can stop China from asserting its claims over almost all the South China Sea. What is your opinion?

ANSWER: China’s strategy is a long-term one and China will become more powerful in coming years, not less. Neither ASEAN, the United States or other maritime powers have developed an effective strategy to counter China’s use of paramilitary forces and commercial activities in the South China Sea to assert its sovereignty claims. As long as Chinese leaders view the South China Sea as strategically important –in other words a core interest – it is unlikely that Beijing will be dissuaded from asserting its sovereignty claims. It will be left up to individual states, like Vietnam and the Philippines, to defend their own sovereignty. The best scenario is that China will act less aggressively once it is convinced that Southeast Asian states recognize China’s de facto sovereignty.

Q9. How do you interpret the lack of reaction from Vietnam after the publication of the information by Jane’s? 4

ANSWER: Vietnam is attempting to chase two rabbits at the same time. It wants good relations with China and it wants to defend its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. These are incompatible. Good relations with China means accommodation with Beijing by working out a modus vivendi to preserve the status quo. China will insist that Vietnam drop its sovereignty claims to the Paracel islands. Vietnam can defend its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea only through building up its military strength to deter China and developing defence ties with reliable strategic partners. Vietnam has decided to pursue the former – build up its defence strength – but is undecided about the latter, for example, developing defence ties with the United States. Consequently Vietnam lurches back and forth chasing the rabbit of good relations with China and then the rabbit of defending its sovereignty claims. At present Vietnam is pursuing good relations with China and therefore has downplayed Chinese land reclamation activities.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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