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South China Sea What Do Satellite Images Reveal? By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0047/ 2015


Jeremy Page, The Wall Street Journal, Beijing Bureau:

Have you reviewed the latest satellite images, published by Jane’s, of Chinese land reclamation and construction in the Spratlys? They clearly show the extent of this work, since 2012, in Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reefs (pictured below). Jane’s also released similar images of Fiery Cross reef last year.

South china sea satellite Image

South china sea satellite Image

These are not the first such images, but they now form a convincing body of evidence about the extent of the work, and the time period in which it has been conducted. We also have some strong comment from the U.S., for whom this appears to be becoming a major concern. We request your assessment of the following:

Q1. What do you think is the purpose of the land reclamation and construction work China is undertaking in the Spratly Islands? People talk generally about it being used to help enforce a potential Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ); but in practical terms, what would China actually use these tiny fortresses for? They don’t seem big enough to actually base fighter jets, for instance. ANSWER: At present, Chinese land reclamation activities are not aimed at establishing a base for a future Air Defence Identification Zone. China just doesn’t have the space to park, service and maintain an air fleet capable of imposing air control over the South China Sea. The artificial islands being created by land reclamation are in the middle of a semi-enclosed sea and would be vulnerable from U.S. aircraft rotating in and out of the Philippines and northern Australia as well as a U.S. carrier battle group.

South China Sea Satel

At a minimum, the new artificial islands would create forward operating bases for commercial activities, fisheries and hydrocarbon exploration, and search and rescue. These artificial islands could store material and fuel, house repair and maintenance facilities, dock ships, provide medical care etc. These artificial islands could also provide a location for radar and other early warning systems to enhance China’s ability to know what is going on in the South China Sea. In the long term, these artificial islands will be linked up with very large floating docks that include will enhance all of the activities just mentioned. China will be able to colonise these artificial islands by settling people on them.

Q2. In what way, if at all, might this affect the ongoing U.N. tribunal on China’s South China Sea claims, or the legal arguments surrounding what constitute islands/rocks/reefs?

ANSWER: International law, and UNCLOS, is very specific about artificial islands. They are entitled to a 500 metre safety zone (or larger by Chinese fiat). If artificial islands fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a littoral state, they come under the sovereignty of the littoral state. The Arbitral Tribunal has been asked to resolve a lacuna in international law by providing a clearer definition of the distinction between an island (naturally formed,  capable of supporting human habitation and an economic function), rock (not an island) and low tide elevations (beneath the sea at high tide). There does not appear to be any direct implication for China’s artificial islands. When the Arbitral Tribunal makes it determination, China’s artificial islands will only be affected if they fall within the maritime of a nearby legal island. International law aside, China will make what it will of its new artificial islands. If China declares an enlarged safety zone or make some other spurious claims to a maritime zone none of the littoral states has the capacity to effectively challenge this. In other words, Chia will deploy maritime law enforcement vessels back up by PLAN warships to assert its control. itself Might will make right.

Q3. How do you think the U.S. and its allies and partners in the region can and will respond to this work?

ANSWER: The U.S. and its allies and partners can only make declaratory protests that China should halt its activities and exercise self-restraint. China will ignore these protests. China has set itself up, through its use of civilian vessels and craft, where the U.S. and its allies cannot effectively challenge its actions. The use of U.S. naval warships would be an escalation and carry risks. At a minimum, the US can send ships and aircraft to and over the waters and airspace around and above the artificial islands to prevent China from unilaterally asserting de facto control to maritime space not sanctioned by international law. In other words the U.S. could contest any attempt by China to expand a safety zone into an enlarged maritime zone.

(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:

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