China is building a number of vacant land facilities in the South China Sea, according to Western officials, they said, an unprecedented move in Beijing’s long-running efforts to strengthen claims to disputed territory in an area vital to global trade. was part of.
While China has previously built disputed reefs, islands and land structures in territory it has long controlled – and militarized them with ports, runways and other infrastructure – officials are the first known nation to do so. The images of the examples presented do not occupy the area it already has. He warned that Beijing’s latest construction activity signals an attempt to push a new status quo, even though it is too early to know whether China will seek to militarize them.
The fishing fleet, which acts as a de facto maritime militia under the control of authorities in Beijing, has carried out construction activities in four uninhabited areas in the Spratly Islands over the past decade, according to officials who have sought to discuss sensitive information. asked not to be identified. He said the size of some sand bars and other formations in the area has increased more than 10 times in recent years.
Satellite photos shared with Bloomberg News showed a Chinese seaplane unloading amphibious hydraulic excavators used in land reclamation projects at Eldad Reef in the northern Spratlys in 2014. Officials, who said the images showed large holes, piles of debris and digging tracks at a site that was only partially visible at high tide.
He said similar activities have also taken place in Lankiam Cay, known as Panata Island in the Philippines, where a facility was strengthened with a new perimeter wall during just a few months last year. Other images they presented show physical changes at both Whitson Reef and Sandy Cay, where previously submerged features now sit permanently above the high-tide line.
Asked to respond to the claims, China’s foreign ministry in Beijing said: “The relevant reports are completely made out of thin air.”
This satellite image obtained by Bloomberg News shows a Chinese maritime militia vessel unloading an excavation at Eldad Reef in 2014.
China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, based on a 1947 map showing vague markings that later became known as the “nine-dash line”. It has previously said that it has the sovereign right to build on its territory.
Tensions between China and other claimants in the South China Sea – the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei – have been rising for years as Beijing has invested more in naval and coast guard ships to enforce its claims. The Spratly Islands, historically small and uninhabited, have taken on greater geopolitical importance, as they are one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and could have military significance, especially if tensions over Taiwan trigger a regional war.
China’s actions have prompted other nations in the region to increase defense spending and undertake reforms. According to a report this month by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Vietnam has this year expanded dredging and landfill work at several outposts in the Spratlys.
The Philippines this month protested Chinese ships floating on two reefs near the Reed Bank, a disputed area where the two nations have discussed a possible joint oil and gas exploration plan. Last year, the Philippines gathered ships at Whatson Reef, about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the country, after more than 200 Chinese militia ships were spotted in similar swarming manoeuvres.
Satellite images obtained by Bloomberg News show physical changes to a layered land feature in Sandy Cay between 2009 and 2021.
Long before the recent upsurge in tensions, Beijing signed a non-binding “Declaration of Conduct” with Southeast Asian countries in 2002, requiring the parties to “residence on currently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features”. called upon to refrain from doing”.
In 2016, a UN-backed international tribunal ruled in a case brought by the Philippines that China’s claims had no legal basis. China rejected the decision, saying the tribunal had no jurisdiction, and continued to send thousands of “fishing” vessels to the disputed land features.
The US has repeatedly criticized China’s actions in the South China Sea and sought to challenge its territorial claims with so-called freedom of navigation operations.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this month that the US is building a more lethal force posture in the Indo-Pacific as part of efforts to ensure that China does not dominate the region.
He said on 3 December, “China is the only country with the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its territory and the international order in line with its authoritarian preferences.” for allowing this to happen.”
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