Spratly Islands Update

Posted on Posted in 2014-2015
By Benjamin Ngan and Aaron M. Tanyag

According to a report released by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), China has been quietly moving sands onto reefs and shoals since February in an effort to create artificial islands along the Spratly archipelago.

The Spratly Islands, which potentially hold a significant amount of natural resources such as oil and natural gas, are one of the disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea (SCS). For more than a decade, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines have all claimed ownership to the aforementioned islands.

Beijing’s move is only the latest incident in the region dubbed as possibly the next flashpoint for major global conflict. Foreign affairs officials believe that the move aims to bolster China’s territorial claim and deny its rivals access to the disputed territories.

PH reacts negatively

The Philippine government and other claimant countries have expressed their concern regarding China’s action. Since April, Manila has filed numerous protests against China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratlys. In a statement last month, President Benigno Aquino III criticized the movement of Chinese ships in the disputed waters, which he claimed was being used to build islands and transport construction materials.

According to DFA spokesman, Charles Jose, “[The creation of artificial islands will] raise tensions and violate the Declaration of Conduct,” referring to a 2002 pact in which all parties in the dispute were signatories. The document reaffirmed the commitment of all parties involved in the dispute to “international law and to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” Furthermore, the parties agreed to “resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force … and to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace….”

China insists that it is entitled to build anything in Nansha, the Chinese name for Spratly, since it is part of its territory. “Anything China does on any of the islands or atolls is within its sovereign rights, and the Philippines has nothing to do with it,” says Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei in an interview with Bloomberg. However, there seem to be enough reasons for the Philippines and other claimant countries to be concerned about China’s buildup.

A national security threat

International security experts believe that if the construction of artificial islands succeeds, it could enable China to build airstrips and other infrastructures, and possibly a base for its military. When this happens, China will be able to strengthen its hold on its occupied territories while at the same time increase tension in the

In an interview by ANC, former Philippine National Security Adviser Roilo Golez points out that once China establishes a military base in the Spratly, it will be a national security threat to other claimant countries. “[If a military base is build], it can threaten all our vital economic [and] military installations including what would be the installations we can make available at the EDCA [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement],” he said.

International law implications

Last March, the Philippines filed a case in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which argues that China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea is illegal. Furthermore, it defines the territories currently occupied by China as only rocks and reefs and not true islands that qualify for economic zones.

With the construction of new islands, however, China is trying to strengthen its legal merits. In an article by ABS-CBN News, Ateneo Political Science lecturer Richard Heydarian explained that the buildup could allow China to claim it has a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone on each island. “Although the Spratly islands are far away from the Hainan coast of China, they are within the 200 nautical miles of other features that they control in the South China Sea…[With this,] once the Chinese establish effective sovereignty, they will also be able to argue the legal opinion that [Spratly is part of their territory],” he says.

However, in an article by Inquirer, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal says that the artificial islands will have no bearing on the case. He mentions Article 60 of UNCLOS which states that “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.”

Changing the status quo

Nevertheless, Golez says that even without the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the mere construction of the base suggests China’s plan. China is trying to change the status quo in the region in order to fortify its claim. More than this, analysts believe that Beijing’s desire to assert sovereignty in the Spratlys is not only because of the economic benefits can bring but also because the country is determined to control the Spratlys as part of its long term goal of projecting power in the whole Western Pacific.

By claiming almost 90% of the whole South China Sea, China will only increase tensions in the already volatile region. International relations scholars believe that China’s actions appear to be “normal for an emerging superpower.” The predicament with China’s abusive political behavior as a rising superpower seems to call for an arbitrary intervention more immediate and binding than the UNCLOS.

Ansfield, Jonathan, and Edward Wong. “To Bolster Its Claims, China Plants Islands in Disputed Waters.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 16 June 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.

Chan, Minnie and Kristine Kwok. “China plans artificial island in disputed Spratlys Chain in South China Sea.” South China Morning Post. SCMP Group, 7 June 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.

Dizon, David. “Why China military base in West PH Sea is a ‘game changer.’” ABS-CBN News. ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, 10 June 2014. Web. 26 June 2014.

Nguyen, Son. “Exposing China’s Artificial Islands Plan in the Spratly’s.” International Policy Digest. International Policy Digest, 17 June 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.

Sands, Gary. “Why is China Building Artificial Islands?” Foreign Policy Blogs. Foreign Policy Association, 23 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.

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