Creating ‘facts on the water’ in South China Sea

A handout satellite image shows dredgers working at the northernmost reclamation site of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea.— PHOTO: New York Times

A handout satellite image shows dredgers working at the northernmost reclamation site of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea.— PHOTO: New York Times  

China has long asserted ownership of the archipelago in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands, also claimed by at least three other countries. But a series of detailed photographs taken of Mischief Reef shows the remarkable speed, scale and ambition of China’s effort to literally gain ground in the dispute.

They show that since January, China has been dredging enormous amounts of sand from around the reef and using it to build up land mass — what military analysts at the Pentagon are calling “facts on the water” — hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland.

Rich in oil and gas

The Chinese have clearly concluded that it is unlikely anyone will challenge them in an area believed rich in oil and gas and perhaps more important, strategically vital. Last week Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, accused China of undertaking an enormous and unprecedented artificial land creation operation. “China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers,” Adm. Harris said in a speech in Canberra, Australia.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, on his first trip to Asia, put the American concerns in more diplomatic language, but the message was the same. In an interview to coincide with his visit, published on Wednesday in the Yomiuri Shimbun , one of Japan’s largest dailies, Mr. Carter said China’s actions “seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions” in territory claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, and indirectly by Taiwan. He urged Beijing to “limit its activities and exercise restraint to improve regional trust.”

While other countries in Southeast Asia, like Malaysia and Vietnam, have used similar techniques to extend or enlarge territory, none have China’s dredging and construction power. The new satellite photographs were taken by DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite imagery provider, and analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group. They certainly confirm the worries expressed by Mr. Carter and Adm. Harris.

“China’s building activities at Mischief Reef are the latest evidence that Beijing’s land reclamation is widespread and systematic,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the centre’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a website devoted to monitoring activity on the disputed territory.

Although these outposts are too vulnerable for China to use in wartime, she said, “they could certainly allow it to exert significant pressure on other South China Sea claimants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.”

Satellite imagery of the Spratlys publicised by IHS Jane’s in November showed how the Chinese had created an island about 9,850 feet long and 985 feet wide on Fiery Cross Reef, about 200 miles west of Mischief Reef, with a harbour capable of docking warships. IHS Jane’s said the new island could support a runway for military aircraft. — New York Times News Service

China’s new outposts could allow it to exert significant pressure on other claimants like Philippines

and Vietnam

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