Growing international criticism of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea and the publication of detailed images of China’s dredging and construction activities prompted the Chinese government to explain in greater detail than ever before the purpose of these activities. In response to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s charge that China has “intensified the militarization in the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and escalated regional tension,” and the release of a series of satellite photos by CSIS of recent dredging and construction activities on Mischief Reef, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying issued a lengthy statement on April 9. In addition to repeating prior positions that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters, and that China’s construction is “fair, reasonable, and lawful,” Hua stated that China’s activities are mainly for civilian purposes, but also are intended to serve “necessary military defense requirements.”

That is the first time that the Chinese government has officially acknowledged that its land reclamation activity is intended at least in part for military purposes. On September 9, 2014, when Hua Chunying was asked explicitly whether China’s large-scale reclamation work was intended for commercial or military use, she responded “As far as I know, the construction work China is undertaking on relevant islands is mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands.” On November 24, Hua made the same claim, adding that by improving the conditions for the island-stationed personnel, they can better fulfill their international obligations and responsibilities in search and rescue.

In the April 9 statement, in addition to acknowledging that China plans to use the outposts for unstated military missions, Hua also provided greater detail about the civilian purposes that the islands will serve. She maintained that China seeks to improve relevant functions the islands and reefs provide, to better safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, to better meet China’s international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, weather observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production services, and other areas.

Hua added that the civilian facilities would provide services to China and its neighboring countries, as well as international vessels sailing in the South China Sea.

In other words, the Chinese are now attempting to assuage concerns about their artificial island building by claiming that these activities are aimed at providing public goods. Chinese researchers are also making this argument. For example, PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo wrote in an article published by China News Agency on March 8 that large scale radar stations are needed in the South China Sea for communication and monitoring. Citing the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Yin Zhuo argued for enhanced search and rescue capabilities to respond to possible sea and air accidents. China, he said, has “undisputed responsibility” for maritime search and rescue in the South China Sea based on an International Maritime Organization (IMO) determination in 1985 that “China and Chinese Hong Kong are responsible for the region north of 10 degrees north latitude and west of 124 degrees east longitude.”

Likely in response to accusations by the Philippines that China’s dredging is causing catastrophic damage to the coral reefs, Hua insisted that China had undertaken “scientific assessments and rigorous tests” to ensure that “the ecology of the South China Sea will not be damaged.” That China’s foreign ministry spokesman felt compelled to make this statement suggests that Beijing is at least somewhat concerned that it not be seen as harming the environment. This may be a useful pressure point for the international community going forward. ASEAN might consider asking the Chinese to share their environmental impact studies.

China’s transparency, albeit limited, about its intentions should be welcome and be used as an opportunity to press for additional information as well as reassurance.  China should be urged to match the information it has provided on the potential civilian purposes of its land reclamation activities with similar details about the military functions its garrisons will serve. CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has confirmed that China is building a 10,000 ft. runway on Fiery Cross Reef that could enable China to monitor and potentially control the airspace over the South China Sea, which would provide greater capability to exert sea control. China might even plan to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) similar to the ADIZ it established in November 2013 in the East China Sea.

Concerned nations should also demand that the Chinese pledge that they will refrain from using these new outposts for destabilizing and coercive conduct. This should include promises not to interfere with freedom of navigation and to forego establishing an ADIZ over disputed maritime areas. To make such commitments palatable to Beijing, they could be included in a Code of Conduct that not only China, but also ASEAN members, agree to. Creating such a legally binding Code is increasingly urgent.

About Bonnie Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.