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Haiyang Shiyou-981 – a pretext for bigger scheme

International scholars say China’s placement of Haiyang Shiyou-981 in Vietnam’s territorial waters is an initial step towards legalising the nine-dash line ambition in the East Sea, but warn its land reclamation in the Spratly archipelago is a serious threat to regional security.

An ambitious plan

Sources report that China has moved earth and other materials to Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago to build infrastructure for an artificial island, a military base and a seaport.

Observers said the move is one of Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence and realise its groundless sovereign claim [nine-dash line] in the East Sea.

The Philippines published pictures showing China is reclaiming land in the Spratly archipelago
The Philippines published pictures showing China is reclaiming land in the Spratly archipelago

China’s land reclamation is taking place in rocks and coral reefs of the Spratly archipelago, hotly contested by both Vietnam and the Philippines.

Since April 2014 the Philippines has accused China of reclaiming soil in the two reefs. In early June Filipino President Benigno Aquino III criticised China for building artificial islands in two other locations.

At the recent 13th Shangri-La meeting in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel also condemned China’s land reclamation in the Spratly archipelago.

Analysts revealed that once China’s artificial islands are built, they will set up radar stations capable of overseeing the whole East Sea, and serve as a logistic base for its ships to operate farther in the region.

They warned that realising China’s groundless claim in the East Sea is just the first step in its long-term strategy to expand in to the Western Pacific.

Associate Professor Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, “By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen the merits of its claims.”

In doing so, analysts feared that China would then legalise its exclusive 200 nautical mile zone around these islands in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In fact, these islands do not meet the necessary conditions enshrined in the UNCLOS to establish the exclusive zone.

A blatant violation of DOC

In a statement last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying affirmed that China has the right to build islands in the Spratly archipelago because they are Chinese territory, and that China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha [Spratly] Islands.

Chinese officials insist that Vietnam and the Philippines have built more structures in the disputed region than China, giving China free reign to do the same.

Experts noted that other countries did not build artificial islands, but instead erected structures before 2002 when ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC).

A DOC clause reads the parties must “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities” that would escalate tensions and must refrain from inhabiting any currently uninhabited land features.

China’s recent actions in the Spratly archipelago have violated DOC. Professor Carlyle A. Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia said that China is intentionally changing the status quo in the region. “It’s not self-restraint. It’s unilateral. It can only raise tensions,” he said.

According to a Western official, China has been building three or four islands since January 2014, and at least one of these structures is intended for military use.

A bigger scheme

In early May 2014 China unilaterally positioned its floating drilling rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 deep inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, sparking tensions in the region.

The Philippines said China is likely to build a runway on the Johnson South Reef (Photo:AP)

Yet, many experts and scholars argue that the building of artificial islands is more serious than the oil rig placement, because these islands will be permanent and serve as a pretext for China to carry out other projects.

Recently published pictures by the Philippines show that China plans not only to reclaim land on the Johnson South Reef but also to build an airstrip there. A Western official, who speaks on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that China is turning the Johnson South Reef into Johnson Island.

Filipino Foreign Affairs Department spokesperson Charles Rose said the pictures show Chinese aggressiveness in asserting its sovereign claims over the East Sea.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh stated that what China is doing on the Johnson South Reef and other islands of the Spratly archipelago is illegal and a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.

“Vietnam resolutely opposes China’s illegal actions, and asks China to strictly respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and DOC.

“Vietnam demands that China immediately stop its illegal expansion in the Spratly archipelago, as well as other unilateral actions to change the status quo of the archipelago and other areas in the East Sea.”

Binh also urged China to withdraw vessels and equipment from the area and not repeat similar actions in the future,e as they threaten peace and stability in the region.

China meandering

Vietnam has shown its goodwill towards settling the East Sea dispute by proposing negotiations, but China fails to respond.  Professor Jin Canrong of the Beijing-based Renmin University said China’s land reclamation in the Johnson South Reef is just a technical test to regional response, and its main objective is the Fiery Cross Reef, about 144km west of the Johnson South Reef.

Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh (standing) refuted China’s slanderous allegations about sovereignty over the Spratly archipelago

Wu Shicun, President of the China National Institute for South China Sea Studies, admitted that China is reclaiming soil on several islands of the Spratly archipelago. However, he insisted that the new installation is to strengthen aquatic management and humanitarian aid capacity, not for military purposes.

 He even said that Chinese structures there are poorer than those of the Philippines and Vietnam, and that Vietnam has even built a sport field over there.

Wu’s comments imply the June 7 volleyball exchange between the navies of the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly archipelago. The exchange is a normal occurrence between the two navies in ASEAN, but, it displeased China.

“Don’t you think this little trick by Vietnam and the Philippines is at most a clumsy farce?” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in response to foreign reporters in Beijing on June 9.

She affirmed China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters, and asked the Philippines and Vietnam to refrain from any action that may complicate and aggravate the disputes.

China – a destabilising factor

However, the USNews commented that the so-called indisputable sovereignty is the most controversial given the fact that China put forward its nine-dash line claim that covers more than 80% of the East Sea’s area. This claim has so far received no international support, except for China itself.

Christopher K. Johnson, the chief China analyst at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s recent moves are partly to compensate for the fact that the Chinese military focused mainly on Taiwan for more than a decade, while Vietnam and the Philippines developed facilities on shoals and reefs they controlled.

He said Chinese military officials are probably keeping in mind future long-range naval power projections. “There’s no doubt that they would love to have some kind of a naval facility on one of these islands,” he said.

Chinese military leaders have talked in recent years about building up a navy capable of operating beyond what is commonly called the “the first island chain” – islands closer to mainland Asia that include the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos – to penetrate the “second island chain,” which includes Guam and other territories farther east.

Professor Thayer said he has seen no signs yet that China is building large military facilities or a runway on the new islands. But he said there is a clear conclusion to be drawn from China’s actions in both the East Sea and the East China Sea, where China contends with Japan over islands.

“None of this is an isolated incident,” he said. “It seems to be a new plan to assert Chinese sovereignty. This isn’t something that will go away. This is a constant thing that will raise tensions, and at the same time no one has a good response to it.”