According to a satellite imagery reported by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building an airstrip on of Fiery Cross Reef. The United States, Philippines, and Vietnam have all voiced official objections to PRC activities. Unsurprisingly, PRC officials dismiss these criticisms, arguing that Fiery Cross Reef development is intended to improve the living and working conditions of search and rescue workers, and noting that many other claimants have airstrips in the Spratlys.
Notably, however, Taiwan, which generally does not challenge PRC activities in the South China Sea, also responded to the Chinese land reclamation activities by repeating its sovereignty claim over the disputed islands the South China Sea. This includes the four large archipelagos: the Pratas Islands, Paracel lands, Macclesfield Bank, and Spratly Islands. It also echoed the U.S. government’s latest call on all claimants to exercise self-restraint and help reduce tensions in the region. In addition, as pointed out by Lin Yu-fang, a Taiwanese legislator with the Kuomintang Party, the Chinese land reclamation activities pose a national security threat to Taiwan.
Fiery Cross Reef is one of six land features that the PRC occupied in 1988 and has been under its effective control over the past 26 years. In addition to the PRC, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim territorial sovereignty over the reef. With the exception of two small rocks, the entire Fiery Cross Reef is covered by the water at high tide. Under international law, no states are allowed to claim sovereignty over geographical features that are submerged under water. In addition, under UNCLOS, land features that are surrounded by and above water at low tide but submerged at high tide are considered low-tide elevation. A low-tide elevation has no territorial sea of its own if it is wholly situated at a distance exceeding the breadth of territorial sea from the mainland or an island.
As a result of PRC reclamation activities, an artificial island was built on Fiery Cross Reef, with a size of 0.0081 square km (90 meters long and 90 meters wide). It was reported on November 23, 2014 that the size of the reef had reached to 1.37 square km and it could become larger.
Taiwan does not explicitly challenge the Chinese activities for three reasons. First, both Taipei and Beijing recognize that there is only one “China” – both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China, but both sides agree to interpret the meaning of that “one China” according to their own individual definition. Beijing’s South China Sea claims are based on Taipei’s. And because Taipei and Beijing claim that the Spratly Islands belong to “China,” it would be contradictory if Taiwan asks PRC to stop land reclamation activities on Fiery Cross Reef. Second, Taiwan is also undertaking a wharf facilities expansion project on Taiping Island (Itu Aba), which is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The wharf can accommodate larger coast guard cutters and navy supply ships. The project also includes air navigation and landing systems and possible extension of the runway in the future. The construction work is to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capability and for the purpose of asking the parties concerned to include Taipei, one of the stakeholders, in regional security dialogues that discuss the South China Sea issue.
Third, the two “rocks”, located in the southwestern and northeastern edge of Fiery Cross Reef, while small and barren, are consistent with the Regime of Islands (Article 121 of UNCLOS), because they are “naturally formed area[s] of land, surrounded by water, which [are] above water at high tide.” As such, the two rocks of the reef are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and 24 nautical mile contiguous zone. Whether or not the two rocks generate a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or continental shelf depends on the interpretation of UNCLOS.
Although Taiwan does not directly challenge the Chinese land reclamation activities in the Spratlys, it does express great concern about the potential threat posed by land reclamation. In addition to the airstrip construction, it is believed that the reef could also be used as an electronic surveillance base. At the Xiangshan Forum, a national security dialogue held on November 20-22, 2014 in Beijing, Jin Zhirui of the Chinese Air Force Headquarters said: “There is a need for a base to support our radar system and intelligence-gathering activities” in the Spratly Islands.
The construction of a major base on Fiery Cross Reef has the potential to upend the strategic structure in the Spratly Islands. It could also tip the balance of power in South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes in PRC’s favor. If a line is drawn in the Spratly archipelago, starting from Spratly Island and extending in the direction from southwest to northeast to reach Thitu Island, Fiery Cross Reef is located in the middle of this line. After the airstrip is built on the reef and military facilities are installed on other occupied reefs the PLA Air Force and Navy will be able to project power further down south to the center part of the South China Sea in the Spratly area would have profound impact on not only military planning of the claimant states in the sea but also other countries concerned such as the United States, Japan, and India.
Vietnam occupied Spratly Island and built a 610-meter long runway in 1973. The Philippines took Thitu Island in 1971 and added a 1,300-meter long runway four years later. Southwest of Thitu lies Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly archipelago, and the only one with fresh water in the area, which has been under Republic of China’s effective control since 1956 and has a 1,200-meter runway. Along the line (see map below) there are five notable land features, all of which were taken by the PRC in 1988: Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, McKennan Reef, and Cuarteron Reef. Land reclamation activities are also undertaken on these reefs by the PRC. It was reported that helipad will be built and helicopters will be deployed on Cuarteron Reef.
The strategic advantages of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef include a base for reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned system, shorter resupply routes, and a basis for anti-submarine warfare equipment. For the PRC, this land feature could fulfill the strategic role of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” In addition, the PRC’s strategic reach could extend from Sanya nuclear submarine base in Hainan to Woody Island of the Paracel archipelago, and then further south to Fiery Cross Reef of the Spratly Islands. Taiwan is also heavily dependent upon importation by sea of fuel, food and other materials, so the security of sea lines of communication is of prime importance to Taipei.
The PRC has claimed a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, because it is the only country without an island-based runway in the Spratlys. After Taiwan built an airstrip on the largest island in the Spratly archipelago, Beijing had made efforts to seek cooperation with Taipei on maritime interests in the South China Sea, including possible use of Taiwan’s facilities on Taiping Island, but without avail. Due to security and foreign policy considerations as well as policy pressure and concern from the U.S. government, the Ma Ying-jeou administration has made its position clear that Taiwan will not cooperate with PRC on issues related to South China Sea territorial disputes.
After the completion of the Chinese land reclamation projects on Fiery Cross Reef, the strategic importance of Taiwan’s Taiping Island will decline. The need for Beijing to seek permission from Taiwan for possible use of Taiping Island or Cross-Strait cooperation in the Spratly Islands is on the wane. At the same time, it is possible that that the PRC may take action against Taiping Island for the purpose of pushing Taiwan to move closer to Beijing’s policy agenda. This includes calls for Cross-Strait dialogue and efforts to deter Taiwan from moving toward independence or abandoning the U-shaped (11-dash) line claim in the South China Sea, which may be possibilities if there is a DPP victory in Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election.
Source: South China Sea, Map and Gazetteer, US Government, 803425AI (G02257) 1-10, January 2010. The map is available online at the website of the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore at http://cil.nus.edu.sg/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/75967_South-China-Sea-1.pdf.