What’s not in the latest photos of China’s Spratly island construction?

fiery_cross2

1. Gaven Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁 in November 2014 (source: AMTI) & Gaven Reef 南薰礁 (source: IHS Janes)

The spectacular photographs of China’s progress in creating artificial islands in the South China Sea have deservedly generated a flurry of attention in the media and punditry in the past week or so.

The pictures show the amazing transformation, over the past year or so, of submerged atolls into sizeable islands with harbours, roads, container depots, workers’ dormitories and even cement plants. The reclamation activities have been documented periodically since early 2014 by Vietnamese bloggers, the Philippines foreign ministry, defense publisher IHS Janes, and, most recently, the Washington-based CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

These images seem to have a special ability to catch people’s eyes and draw attention to the issue. On my own humble Twitter feed, where most posts are lucky to be noticed by anyone, when i’ve attached images of China’s artificial Spratlys, the stats suddenly light up with dozens of retweets, many from strangers.

With this viral quality, and visual impact, they could well become iconic images that define the South China Sea issue as a whole. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what’s not in the pictures. Here’s my stocktake, together with a collection of less widely-circulated photos:

  1. The scoreboard: China is still well behind
  2. The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
  3. The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
  4. The regional context: easing tensions
  5. The environment: an unfolding tragedy

Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!

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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.

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Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China?

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.

It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:

By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.

Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.

Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.

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