Much has been written and reported on China’s recent land reclamation and mass construction activities in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which raise alarm about Chinese plans to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. Of course, Chinese and even Taiwanese officials and scholars have put forward complaints that it is unfair to point fingers at China without criticizing other claimants’ actions. It is true that all claimants, except Brunei, have engaged in different kinds of constructions on the features they control. They also share the some of the same objectives: demonstrating effective control to advance their sovereignty claims, improving the living standards of people working there, and defending these features from being attacked. It is, however, worth pointing out the difference in the nature, scale, purpose, and timing of land building and construction activities undertaken by China and other South China Sea claimants.

Unlike the situation in the Paracels, where China used force in 1974 to drive out Vietnamese troops and take over all islands, rocks, buildings, and facilities, the situation in the Spratlys can be characterized as “first come, first build.” The first wave of actual occupation took place between the Second World War and the 1970s when Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines occupied the biggest islands, followed by Malaysia, which came to occupy the features that lie within its claimed continental shelf. The second wave of occupation bids began when Chinese forces wrestled control of the Johnson South Reef in 1988 after killing about 70 Vietnamese sailors stationed there, followed by a competition between China and Vietnam. As a result of this process, most of the features controlled by other claimants in the Spratlys are naturally formed and permanently dry islands or rocks, while seven of those features occupied by China – the latest comer to the Spratlys- are submerged reefs or low-tide elevations. This state of affairs leads to at least three differences between Chinese activities and others’ actions in the Spratlys.

First, for various reasons including the desire to improve its defensive and offensive capabilities, China is reclaiming its occupied reefs (originally submerged or low-tide elevations), while other claimants simply needed to build necessary facilities on their occupied islands and rocks, without changing the geological conditions of those features. Vietnam, for example, follows a standard pattern with constructions on its controlled Spratly islands. On big islands, it sets up administrative and civilian buildings, a light house, a wind power system, a helipad, parabolic disc antennas, gun emplacements, gun shelters, military barracks, concrete bunkers, and several light posts. On small rocks it has often erected a gold-painted three-story concrete building with solar panels, parabolic disc antennas, with gun emplacements around for defensive purposes.

Second, and related, the construction projects undertaken by other claimants on their controlled rocks or islands do not seek alter the legal status of those features and are therefore permissible under international law. The massive scale of China’s land reclamation and construction seeks to change the legal status of the features, turning submerged reefs or low-tide elevations into large-scale islands or at least artificial islands. These actions are only legally allowable within a coastal state’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Third, it should be noted that other claimants had almost completed major construction undertakings on their controlled islands before signing the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea (DOC) and have since then engaged in only minor upgrading or repair work. In contrast, while China has since 1988 also engaged in building activities on the land features it controls, its extensive reclamation and construction scheme began to take momentum simultaneously on all seven of its occupied reefs in the Spratlys in 2014.

To better understand the purpose of various land building and construction activities undertaken by different claimants in the Spratlys, one needs to view those activities in tandem with the broader strategies that each of these countries adopts in handling South China Sea issues. Since the 1990s, Vietnam and other ASEAN claimants have implicitly reached a common understanding to maintain the status quo of occupation, to settle disputes by peaceful means, and to refrain from activities that may negatively affect interests of other members. Taiwan’s activities have mainly concentrated on its occupied island Itu Aba and do not directly threaten other claimants in the South China Sea

Since 1992, when tensions with China flared up after Beijing awarded to the Crestone Energy Corporation a concession for oil exploration in the Vanguard Bank – an area that falls within Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile EEZ– the issue of defending Vietnamese sovereign rights and jurisdiction has become more pressing than its need to bolster Spratly sovereignty claims. Consequently, Vietnam has been shifting its investments from land building projects in the Spratlys to plans to improve the capacity of its naval, air, and law enforcement forces while maintaining the status quo of control and presence.

This situation also explains the contrast in interpretations of Article 121 of UNCLOS on the legal regime of islands between China on one hand and Vietnam (and the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei) on the other. To narrow down the area of maritime dispute, the Southeast Asian claimants consider, explicitly or implicitly, that Spratly features are rocks and can generate maximally 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. In contrast, to maximize the area of maritime dispute, and beyond relying on its infamous U-shaped line, China has advocated that the Spratly features are islands and therefore fully entitled to territorial seas, EEZs and continental shelves. It has invested heavily in land reclamation and construction projects to turn its occupied features into full-fledged islands that can fulfill the requirement Article 121 of UNCLOS of being able to “sustain human habitation or economic life of their own”.

It seems clear that with its strategic design, political determination, economic prowess and technological advantage, China will far outpace other claimants in land building efforts in the Spratlys. For Southeast Asian claimants, engaging in significant land building or construction works on occupied Spratly features seems to be a not-so-tempting endeavor that would undermine their interest in narrowing the area of maritime dispute and protecting the EEZs and continental shelves generated from their mainland. For China, however, the seemingly-endless thrust for land reclamation and construction may have just begun.

About Tran Truong Thuy

Tran Truong is a research fellow and director of the Center for East Sea (South China Sea) Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV). Before joining the DAV, he worked in the European Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam and has published extensively on maritime issues.