In the disputed South China Sea, China has been busy over the past year creating artificial islands and expanding existing islands. Uproar over the construction of the islands has led the Chinese to announce that their building activities will soon end. While the military nature of this project is apparent, China keeps reiterating that one of the primary reasons for this massive project is to provide search and rescue, and meteorological services to the region. Whatever the case may be, Chinas activities have unsettled the region and served to deteriorate relations it has with other regional and international actors.
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top planning agency recently said that the construction of the islands is intended to help with maritime search and rescue (SAR), disaster relief, and offer navigational assistance in addition to unspecified military roles. Ultimately the NDRC says that additional facilities will be built on the islands to provide those services. In late May, China held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of two lighthouses on Huayang Reef and Chigua Reef.
This is not the first time Chinese officials have made such claims. Back in April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying argued that since the region is at risk of typhoons, the island building is to provide SAR, disaster relief, marine forecasting services, and research support to the region. Much the same was put forth by Admiral Sun Jianguo in May though he did not of an unspecified use. In a way it does make sense since the area is heavily transited by shipping and if stranded, a vessel is a long way from the nearest land base. On the other hand, if what the Chinese say is true, that the islands are to provide services to the benefit of the region, then why all the secrecy?
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China’s decision to halt the island construction and repeat the peaceful claims might have been an attempt to reduce tensions at the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that was held in Washington this week. By halting island construction, China aims to reduce military tensions with the U.S. which have intensified somewhat over the past year with U.S. warships such as the USS Fort Worth being shadowed by a Chinese frigate and Chinese aircraft intercepting U.S. aircraft. Though it is important to note that while island construction will end soon, the completion of projects on them will continue.
Over the past 18 months China has been active at seven sites and has dredged up over 2,000 acres of land in constructing new islands. On Fiery Cross Reef, thanks to the land reclamation, a runway has been built that is long enough to handle military aircraft thus giving China an airbase in the South China Sea. Prior to this, China was the only South China Sea claimant nation besides Brunei to lack an airfield in the region, a factor which has complicated China’s ability to patrol the disputed region.
While facilities on the newly built Chinese islands may actually serve the region in a peaceful way, there is no mistaking that the primary motivation for the island building has been military related. The South China Sea is believed to be rich in mineral resources and whoever controls the islands in it gains access to that wealth. By constructing these islands, China is moving to shore up its position and solidify its hold in the region. Naturally this is disconcerting to other claimant nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines but also to countries such as the U.S. There are real justified concerns that a small incident between China and another country can occur leading to a conflict spiral.