TOKYO: Beijing has announced plans to put two more lighthouses in the disputed South China Sea into operation by the end of the year, state media has reported.
Construction on lighthouses on Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs—both in the contested Spratly Island chain—is being rushed, and will provide navigational services to ships in the vicinity, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.
China has used massive land reclamation projects to build man-made islands on both reefs.
On Mischief Reef, it has reclaimed approximately 5.5 square kilometers of land, while adding infrastructure that includes work begun in January on an apparent airstrip, according to data compiled by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Fiery Cross, another of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, is also home to an airfield and military-grade infrastructure.
The lighthouse on the east end of Mischief Reef, which Xinhua said is over 60 meters high, is one of the tallest structures in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands.
A modern hospital was also due to be completed on Fiery Cross by the end of this month, the report said. Remote technology will be used for consultations.
The Xinhua report called the South China Sea “a critical maritime corridor linking the Pacific and Indian oceans” but claimed that “high traffic density, complex navigation conditions, a severe shortage in rescue forces have combined to threaten navigation safety and hinder regional economic and social development.”
Beijing has said that the infrastructure it is building in the South China Sea is civilian and will help prevent ships from striking rocks and reefs and aid lost fishermen.
But some observers have expressed concern that having lighthouses in the disputed waters could boost Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the region, which the U.S. and its allies say is being militarized by China.
In April, China announced that it had begun operating a lighthouse on Subi Reef, which is also in the Spratly archipelago.
Beijing lays claim to most of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also home to key sea lanes through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Aside from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
The lighthouse announcements come ahead of a key ruling by an international tribunal on the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. The court is widely expected to rule in favor of the Philippines in the coming weeks. TNS