Twenty-seventeen (2017) was a big year for Chinese construction activities in the South China Sea. The report this week by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) is nothing less than alarming, as it shows that “[w]hile pursuing diplomatic outreach toward its Southeast Asian neighbors, Beijing continued substantial construction activities on its dual-use outposts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.”
In 2016, China was said to have completed dredging and land-filling operations to form seven new islands in the Spratlys.
This year, according to the Washington-based AMTI, Beijing appeared “committed to advancing the next phase of its build-up—construction of the infrastructure necessary for fully-functioning air and naval bases on the larger outposts.” In short, permanent facilities.
Using satellite images, AMTI found that this year, Beijing completed 290,000 square meters of facilities at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratlys, and North, Tree, and Triton Islands in the Paracels.
These facilities include buildings, “ranging from underground storage areas and administrative buildings to large radar and sensor arrays.”
Manila should raise concern, as Fiery Cross Reef, which the Philippines claims and calls Kagitingan Reef, “saw the most construction over the course of 2017, with work on buildings covering 27 acres, or about 110,000 square meters,” AMTI said.
The report stated: “This counts work previously documented by AMTI, including completion of the larger hangars alongside the airstrip, work on large underground structures at the south of the island likely intended to house munitions or other essential materiel, a large communications/sensor array at the northeast end of the island, various radar/communications facilities spread around the islet, and hardened shelters for missile platforms at the south end.”
Moreover, large underground tunnels that AMTI earlier said were likely to be for ammunition and other storage have been completed.
Subi or Zamora Reef, also being claimed by the Philippines, also saw considerable building activity this year, AMTI said. The think tank found 95,000 square meters of buildings, including buried storage facilities, hangars, missile shelters, radar or communications facilities, and a high-frequency “elephant cage” antenna array for signals intelligence.
At Mischief or Panganiban Reef, construction covered 68,500 square meters, including underground storage for ammunition and other materiel, the completion of hangars and missile shelters, and new radar and communications arrays, AMTI said.
China, as expected, downplayed the AMTI findings, which it described as “hype.”
“If China is conducting any peaceful construction activity or deploying necessary defence facilities, it’s very normal because it’s within our sovereignty,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
“We believe that some individuals are making a fuss about this. They’re trying to hype it up,” Lu told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
These developments should hasten work on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, as agreed upon in Manila last month during the 31st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Considering that China could end up regulating the $5 trillion in global trade that goes through the passageway annually, this new status quo is untenable and should rouse all South China Sea claimants to action.