China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.


As an anonymous “Western official” in the article points out, the upgraded islands could be used for military radar and supply stations. Along with sustaining increased numbers of personnel, and possibly airstrips, this would allow China to strengthen its presence in the disputed archipelago and project more power over the surrounding maritime space. After all, it is a very long way from the Chinese mainland.

However, parts of the NYT article were problematic in my opinion. First of all, it didn’t mention that the PRC has been steadily building up its infrastructure on these reefs, including through land reclamation, since it first occupied them in early 1988. As a recent pictorial review from the PLA Daily’s news portal ChinaMil put it: “from wooden huts to maritime fortresses“. Their use for military purposes certainly isn’t new either; as i understand it they have always been under the direct control of the PLA Navy from the very beginning. So although this latest move appears unprecedented in scale,[1] it’s very much in keeping with the PRC’s long-term policy in the Spratlys. I’ve collected a lot of better pictures of the building processes than these, taken from the ChinaMil story linked above, but i’m trying to keep this brief and they give the general idea:

PRC-Spratlys1 PRC-Spratlys2 PRC-Spratlys3 PRC-Spratlys4

Another problem with the article is the claim that:

the new islands could allow China to claim it has an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of each island , which is defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This is one of the rare South China Sea issues on which there is a clear answer. UNCLOS explicitly states that neither artificial islands nor rocks incapable of sustaining human habitation (which some of these “islands” were before China started building on them) can generate 200nm EEZs (see Article 60 & Article 121 respectively). If China is claiming 200nm EEZs from the Spratlys, something which it hasn’t yet made clear, this claim will be based on the contention that it enjoys sovereignty over the dozen or so real islands that are occupied by other countries.

The NYT piece also says that “other countries did not build islands, and that they generally erected their structures before 2002”, when the China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea was signed. Actually, Vietnam has turned numerous reefs into artificial islands, and both Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, have built plenty of new structures there since 2002. As the NYT article rightly points out, this is not strictly against the letter of the DOC, though it is definitely against the spirit of “self-restraint” that it called for. One of the main tasks of China Maritime Surveillance fleet (now a major part of the Chinese Coast Guard) was to monitor and document these construction developments.

West Reef, occupied by Vietnam, photographed from CMS patrol boat (source: CCTV)

Flat Island, occupied by the Philippines, photographed from CMS patrol boat (source: CCTV)

Lastly, there is the idea that the island reclamation could be aimed at the Western Pacific beyond the First Island Chain. Maybe this is just pedantry on my behalf, because the NYT article makes clear that this is speculative, but to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense given the Spratlys’ geographic location, separated from the Western Pacific by a US ally, the Philippines. China is indeed trying to breaking through the First Island Chain, but it is pursuing that goal by sending PLA Naval patrols through strategic thoroughfares far to the north, such as the Bashi Strait and Miyako Strait.

East and South China Seas (source: Japan Defense White Paper 2012)

None of this is intended  to suggest that these developments aren’t significant. In fact, this could prove to be the beginning of an even more urgent assertion of PRC control in the South China Sea. It also shows signs of being Vietnam-directed. As a “confidential” Philippines government report cited by the Philippine Star this week pointed out, China’s land reclamation activities have been observed on five reefs in the Spratlys, but all in the western part of the archipelago, where Vietnam’s strongholds are concentrated:

the report noted China has focused its land reclamation operations in areas farther from the Philippine mainland.

The PRC’s move, or at least the timing of it, may be related to the HYSY-981 oil rig ploy in the Paracels (there is also now a second rig, Nanhai-9 in disputed waters even closer to the Vietnamese mainland). With its hands full trying to oppose the oil drilling on its doorstep, Vietnam probably has little ability to interfere with China’s reef base expansions hundreds of kilometres away. One can imagine from the Chinese party-state’s perspective, the combination of the two actions has limited its opponent’s ability to cause trouble, thereby safeguarding regional stability — another glimpse, perhaps, of how actions that appear destabilizing from an outside perspective, may be construed by Chinese policymakers in exactly the opposite way.

Chinese experts have told the South China Morning Post, the biggest plans are yet to come: expanding Fiery Cross Reef to “at least double” the size of Diego Garcia. That sounds extremely ambitious, but it reinforces once again how significant these developments may turn out to be. Still, in order to get a grasp of that significance, it’s important to view them in their proper historical, political and geographic context. I’m not sure the NYT story did that for its readers.


[1] Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁 has traditionally been the largest of these reef forts, with just under 1 hectare having been reclaimed. According to the Philippines government, the new reclamation activities have expanded Johnson Reef to almost 9 hectares.

3 Comments on “China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new”

  1. […] i’ve mentioned here before, China upgraded its spartan “First Generation” outposts of the 1980s, known as […]

  2. […] example, China’s massive island-building activities began in early 2014 and were widely reported in foreign media from around June last year, but they only received their first mention on Xinwen Lianbo on June 16 […]

  3. Pat Ingalls says:

    Where is the sand coming from?
    Has oil been found?

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