A number of photographs have been published showing the scale of building projects on artificial reefs in the South China Sea.
The Chinese website features a slideshow of 17 photographs showing a number of different scenes, providing evidence of just how quickly China is developing facilities to support the troops stationed on the new islands, according to Reuters.
Photos show sailors smiling alongside greenhouse
A group of female sailors can be seen posing among vegetable gardens and ocean breakwalls, and pigs in a pen is shown in another photo. The photos were taken on Fiery Cross Reef, which has seen extensive land reclamation and building work.
One of the biggest websites in China, Sina, published the slideshow with the headline “Gratifying results on China’s Yongshu Reef: building vegetable greenhouse (and) growing fruit trees.”
The South China Sea is currently subject to territorial claims from a number of countries, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China. It is the Chinese that are pushing the hardest to strengthen their claims, carrying out extensive land reclamation efforts at 7 reefs throughout the Spratly chain.
Other claimants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have also used land reclamation as a way of bolstering their claims to the sea, but nothing like the scale of the work that Beijing has carried out. The industrial scale of its projects has caused alarm among the rival claimants, as well as provoking criticism from the United States.
South China Sea: A strategically important area
The South China Sea is one of the most important shipping routes in the world, and is also home to rich fishing grounds. Its strategic importance makes it a key part of China’s strategy to challenge U.S. primacy in the region, and reset the relationship between the two countries.
There was no photo accreditation for the images, but it appears that they were found on a variety of other sites including state radio and one celebrity gossip site.
One image shows a group of 6 female sailors posing on a wall, with a greenhouse visible behind them. In another photo, a female sailor can be seen next to a stone plinth which features the inscription “Awe-inspiring South China Sea.”
A number of the photos show the greenhouse, perhaps emphasizing the potential self-sufficiency of the base. It appears as though the sailors stationed on Fiery Cross Reef are not forced to subsist on military rations, given the presence of a dozen well-fed pigs in another photo.
Although food is a focus, the military facilities on the reef are not shown. Fiery Cross is home to a new 3,000 meter runway which can handle any plane in China’s armed forces, as well as airborne early-warning radar systems. These installations are clearly visible from commercial satellite images, but Beijing presumably does not want to emphasize the military nature of the facilities.
Talks to address potential flashpoint
The land reclamation project has come in for increasing criticism from the U.S., and officials in Washington have accused Beijing of doing little to reduce tensions in the region. A recent announcement from China stated that the land reclamation work was almost finished, but facilities would continue to be built on the new islands.
Beijing is keen to stress that the new islands will primarily be used for non-military purposes such as maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection and navigation.
Tensions in the South China Sea will be an important part of high-level talks due to take place in Washington D.C. next week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi. U.S. officials have underlined their commitment to maintaining dialogue with China regarding the territorial disputes, as well as the issue of cyber security, human rights and climate change.
Growing international concern over Chinese intentions
Dennis Richardson, the secretary of the Australian defense department, has also weighed in on the tensions in the region. “The land reclamation activity by China in the South China Sea has been at a pace and scale in the last two years beyond anything we have previously seen. It dwarfs what the other claimant states have done, and the size of the land reclamation does raise questions about its purpose,” he said.
Concerns are growing over Beijing’s plans in the South China Sea, and the fact remains that there is little that can be done to halt the work. China is becoming increasingly belligerent in the region as building work continues, and even told a U.S. surveillance plane to leave the airspace near the new islands a few weeks ago.
Some commentators believe that politicians in Beijing are testing Washington’s willingness to act in the region, and challenging U.S. primacy in Asia, where China has long believed that it deserves more respect and authority.