The South China Sea has been a global hot spot for a number of years now. China began making aggressive territorial claims in the area back in 2012, and has been in conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia on a number of occasions regarding their claims. The U.S. is also involved as the ally of several nations in the region, and recently was involved in an incident as an American surveillance aircraft in international airspace close to the contested Spratly Islands was challenged by the Chinese military.
China claims island reclamation almost complete
“The land reclamation project of China’s construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands [Spratly islands] will be completed in the upcoming days,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang noted in a statement published on the ministry’s website Monday.
Political analysts note it appears China is trying to tamp down tensions over its reclamation and development program, which has resulted in 1,500 acres of land reclaimed since December, for a total of more than 2000 new acres. The activity by China has been upsetting neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines that also have claims in the South China Sea.
However, Lu continued to say that the reclamation activity would just end on “some” of the islands, without providing any further details. Sources confirm that China has been involved in construction activities on at least seven islands, and is already more than halfway finished with an airstrip where China’s largest military aircraft will be able to land.
Of note, the statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry also comes as both nations get ready for the U.S.-China strategic economic dialogue on June 23-24, as well as the visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington in September of this year.
China trying to reinforce territorial claims
The foreign ministry statement reiterated China’s argument that its reclamation activity is legal because the islands and reefs fall within China’s territory. Of note, China lays claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea on the basis of a “nine-dash line” appearing on a 1940s map. Five other countries also make claims to territory in the South China Sea.
“After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements,” Lu noted. He continued to say the islands will be used for military as well as for civilian purposes including marine scientific research and meteorological observation.
U.S. surveillance aircraft incident
Back in late May, a U.S. surveillance aircraft was making an overflight of the Spratly Islands area in international airspace when it was challenged by a Chinese military operator on the radio. According to transcripts seen by the media, the Chinese navy radio operator line is heard addressing the “foreign military aircraft,” and then issuing a warning: “You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately.”
After the incident, the United States maintained that it has the right to overfly anywhere it wants in international waters.
Recent Pentagon report on South China Sea
A Pentagon report published in May confirmed that China has been constructing a network of islands in the South China Sea, as well as making major infrastructure improvements on several of the new islands.
China is using heavy equipment to build facilities at five separate sites that officials say could be used for expanded outposts such as harbors, communications and surveillance systems as well as logistics and other support hubs. U.S. military officials are aware of at least one 3,000-yard airfield that analysts say is already close to completion.
“The ultimate purpose of the expansion projects remains unclear and the Chinese government has stated these projects are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands,” according to the recent Pentagon report put together at the request of Congress.
The report also noted, “Most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea.” The May Pentagon report only covered a period up to December 2014, and analysts say the Chinese have continued to build up both islands and infrastructure since then.