It is widely reported that China is conducting land reclamation on six of its seven occupied features in the Spratlys in the South China Sea, transforming the submerged reefs and rocks into full-pledged islands with airstrips, harbors and other military and civilian structures. Once reclamation works are completed, Fiery Cross Reef alone will be at least two square kilometres in size – as large as all other islands in the Spratlys are combined.

Chinese officials and scholars have cited several reasons to justify Beijing’s strategic move including a need for improved search and rescue capability in the South China Sea, a desire to improve the working and living conditions of Chinese nationals working there, and a need for a base to support China’s radar and intelligence system. Chinese representatives have complained on various occasions that it is unfair to point the finger at China as other SCS claimants have already engaged in reclamation activities and China is the last of claimants to have airstrips there.

Whatever the reasons are, Chinese unprecedented large-scale land reclamation works, once finished, will tremendously impact the dynamics of the claimants’ contest and major powers’ competition in the South China Sea.

Chinese fishing squads, which already enjoy financial, technical, and administrative support from central and local governments, can utilize facilities on the enlarged islands to extend the duration and scope of their fishing activities, which will most likely stoke tensions with other claimants as they intrude into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia and court confrontation with those countries’ fishermen and law enforcement forces.

The enlarged islands with airstrips and harbors could arguably strengthen Chinese coercive capabilities, allowing China to quickly and extensively deploy its military, paramilitary and pseudo-civilian vessels and aircrafts to the central and southern parts of the South China Sea in case of confrontation with other claimants.

Jane’s Defence Weekly considers Chinese facilities on the enlarged islands as “purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions.” It is unlikely that other claimants will ever relinquish their claims and possessions in the Spratlys; nevertheless, those facilities could arguably enhance Chinese capabilities to block the supply routes of Vietnam, Philippines to their controlled islands and rocks there. China’s attempts to block Philippine supplying routes to the Second Thomas Shoal in the first half of 2014 well illustrate this point.

On a brighter side, it might be argued that possession of large islands with sophisticated military and civilian facilities that could cater to all its needs would decrease the incentives for China to attack islands controlled by others.

Different from other claimants’ presence on the Spratlys, which is aimed at demonstrating effective administration of their currently controlled islands by maintaining airstrips that can assist in supplying those islands, China’s expanded military presence there could serve to enhance Chinese power projection capability in, if not control of, the South China Sea. The web of Chinese military bases in the South China Sea, connecting Sanya in Hainan Island in the north to Woody Island in the Paracels in the west to new unsinkable aircraft carriers in Fiery Cross, Johnson South, Cuateron and Gaven Reefs in the Spratlys in the center and the south, and possible bases in the Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in the east, will enhance Chinese capability to enforce an air defense identification zone above the South China Sea if and when established, harass U.S. military activities in and above the sea, hunt for American submarines, place Australia within Chinese strategic bombers’ range for the first time, and control or at least send a deterrent message of Chinese capability in blocking the critical energy supply routes from the Middle East to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

From an international law perspective, commentators have already highlighted that China’s reclamation works constitutes a breach of international agreements, which require all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake unilateral actions that would permanently change the status quo regarding the disputed areas. Insofar as Chinese dredging and constructing activities are damaging the coral system in the Spratlys, they are also indicative of China’s disregard for ‘duty to cooperate’ with other environmentally affected States. Furthermore, these activities are inconsistent with the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls on all parties to refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate the disputes. In presenting others states with a new ‘fait accompli’ during the negotiation for an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – one of the main purposes of which is to keep the status quo of the South China Sea, China is dashing any hope for a meaningful document that can help govern this troubled maritime area.

So far, three countries – Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States – have protested China’s reclamation activities, but clearly diplomatic protests alone have little impact on China’s will and calculations. A Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry official has bluntly stated that China can carry out whatever construction in the reefs that are within its “sovereignty.”

Given the enormous stakes at peril and a wide range of affected parties, a concerted effort by all littoral states and stakeholders is more than urgent to prevent this common sea from permanently becoming anybody’s lake before it is all too late.

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.