On February 26, the semi-official China Military Online reported that Beijing is conducting “large-scale” land reclamation in the disputed Spratly Islands—activities that the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and major news outlets worldwide have been watching closely in recent weeks. In a follow-on article, Reuters called this public acknowledgment of work on six reefs “unusual.” We should not be terribly surprised, however, that Beijing has owned up to its rapid-fire development efforts in the South China Sea. Plenty of evidence suggests that China sees itself as catching up to other Spratly claimants and views these land features as its sovereign territory. This means that it can publicly acknowledge these efforts as a point of pride, despite the fact that other states in the region see them as deeply destabilizing.
Of the six countries (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei) that claim territory in the Spratly Islands, China was the last to arrive. Taiwan occupied its first island in 1946 and built a base there a decade later. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia all staked out Spratly features from the 1970s onwards, and these states claimed the more desirable features (islands and rocks). China took its first outpost there, Johnson South Reef, in 1988, after a battle that left 70 Vietnamese soldiers dead. It then occupied several more reefs for a total of seven. In the intervening years, Malaysia and Vietnam have both reclaimed land in the Spratlys, although the details of this construction are sketchy at best in both cases. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all have airstrips in the Spratlys, whereas China appears to be building its first one now on Fiery Cross Reef. This history matters a great deal, because what Washington and its friends and allies may see as punctuated, lightening-speed construction is likely viewed in China as a perfectly legitimate game of catch-up. Some international analysts seem to agree with this interpretation.
A second reason that we should not be surprised by Beijing’s acknowledgement is that China sees these land features as its own territory, and therefore perfectly well within its right to reclaim and develop. Although Beijing has never clarified the precise meaning of its Nine-Dash Line that encompasses most of the South China Sea, we do know that it claims at least the land features as sovereign. When US officials publicly criticized China’s reclamation in November, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson reaffirmed Beijing’s sovereignty over the Spratlys and rejected Washington’s right to intervene. This week, rather than deny its systematic building activities, Chinese publications have announced them with pride, and hailed the news of these developments as “Good News for the New Year!” Furthermore, in just the last few days, Chinese and international sources have announced that Beijing is building on Subi Reef—a seventh feature that was not included on last week’s list. Despite this week’s international scrutiny of China’s Spratly spree Beijing has not shied from adding another location to its reclamation manifest.
Third, when considering Beijing’s acknowledgement, recall that land reclamation is not illegal. It violates the spirit of the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on Conduct for the South China Sea and certainly does not improve the chances that China and ASEAN will achieve a binding Code of Conduct, but there is no explicit legal provision against it. Indeed, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman has defended reclamation against foreign criticism with the claim that it is legitimate under international law.
Beijing’s public acknowledgement, unsurprising though it may be, does underscore why the international community has relatively few responses at its disposal to directly engage Beijing’s reclamation. If China truly sees itself as rectifying its longstanding disadvantages in the Spratlys and doing so on Chinese territory without violating international law, simply shedding light on these activities will not alone be enough to dissuade further action.