The year 2017 was “a constructive year for Chinese base building” in the South China Sea, according to Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). On December 14, CSIS reported that China had completed 29 hectares (290,000 square meters) of “new real estate” on three reefs in the Spratly archipelago and three islands in the Paracels. On December 24, the Chinese newspaper Global Times confirmed both the figure and the fact that China had “accelerated construction and enhanced its military presence on South China Sea Islands and shoals over the past year as territorial tensions with neighboring countries are subsiding.”
The article also said that the “size of some South China Sea Islands will be further expanded in the future with more dredging vessels.” The new “magic island maker”—dredging vessel Tian Kun Hua—is expected to be “working on the land reclamation projects in the South China Sea region.” Tian Kun Hua is called a magic island maker because it can dredge up to 6,000 cubic meters an hour, dig 35 meters under the sea floor, and “blast through seabed rocks, suck up sand, and pump material through a pipeline over a distance of 15 kilometers” (South China Morning Post).
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s initial response to the news of China’s construction activities was brief: “We don’t know where these works are,” Roque said. “We continue to rely on China’s good faith. Location is material since we do not have claims on all these islands and waters in the disputed sea,” he was quoted as saying.
It is obvious that China is as determined as ever to achieve full control over the South China Sea, and that its neighboring countries appear unwilling to raise any protests. “The relationship between China and other Southeast Asia countries, such as the Philippines, has calmed in recent years, providing a golden opportunity for China to upgrade these areas,” a researcher from the National Institute for the South China Sea told Global Times.
The silence from countries with overlapping claims in the South China Sea—such as the Philippines—has apparently been an invitation to China to push on with the construction of facilities on the disputed islands, at an accelerated speed at that. And, as the Global Times article promises, more reclamation activities are to come.
Secretary Roque was hopefully speaking for himself and not for President Duterte when he implied that the Philippines was not concerned with China’s activities in the South China Sea unless these occur in areas claimed by the Philippines. The fact is that all these activities are connected as China has one big plan for its territory – a territory that counts the South China Sea region, formally under the geographical jurisdicion of Sansha City, whose administrative center is located on Woody Island in the Paracels.
China has created seven artificial islands in the Spratly island group. Of these seven, three—Subi (Zamora) Reef, Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef, and Mischief (Panganiban) Reef —saw major construction activities in 2017. Very soon, they will be ready to land military aircraft and store missiles.
In the Paracels, in 2017 China engaged in construction activities in Tree, North and Triton islands. Vietnam and China have overlapping claims in the Paracels, much like China and the Philippines in the Spratlys.
Subi Reef is very close to Pagasa (Thitu) Island and thus of concern to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Mischief Reef, on the other hand, is located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 125 and 598 nautical miles from the Philippines and China, respectively. Location is indeed material, as Mr. Roque put it, but obviously, it is more complicated than that. We have a reef on Philippine territory, a reef that has been reclaimed, furnished with airstrip, underground storage, hangars, missile shelters, and radar facilities, all planned, designed and constructed by the Chinese government without any consultation with or authority from the Philippine government. Location is material here, for the Philippines.
China of course has all the right in the world to boost its military defenses against real or potential threats, today and in the future. Unfortunately, China is pushing its national security interests in the region on the principle that might is right without due respect for the internationally recognized rights of smaller nations such as the Philippines. While engaging in diplomacy with other countries, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), expressing its commitment to find peaceful and mutually beneficial solutions to the dispute, China never stopped forging ahead with its construction on the reclaimed islands. And it will continue this construction and expansion whether or not the rest of the world will protest it. China’s “build, build, build” plan for the South China Sea is likely to continue in 2018.