Earlier this year, numerous reports surfaced on China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea through land reclamation of submerged reefs. Of particular concern, China was reported to be building an island at least 3,000m long on the Fiery Cross Reef which could be the site for its first airstrip in the Spratlys. The land reclamation at Fiery Cross was the fourth and largest project undertaken by China in the Spratlys since 2013, having previously built new islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef and Gaven Reefs. Prior to this, China had been at a distinct disadvantage as compared to the other claimant states (Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia) as it was the only claimant not to occupy an island with an airfield in the Spratlys.
Reports stated that the establishment of such islands and airstrips would allow China to set up an air defence zone similar to the one created in the East China Sea. It has also been speculated that China could use the new islands to claim an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of each island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The last conjecture would not hold water as Article 60 of UNCLOS states that artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They consequently have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial waters, the exclusive economic zone, or the continental shelf. Nonetheless, such debates emphasise the continued dominance of land as the reference point for defining territory and boundaries, and the compounded difficulty in defining and maintaining those boundaries extending beyond terra firma (bearing in mind, of course, that land borders are contested as well).
Notwithstanding assertions that the artificial island would serve as a base to project force, the reactions to these recent developments reflect the assumptions we make and take for granted concerning “natural” terrain and the dichotomy between land and sea. There seems to be something fundamentally different about establishing claims by occupying existing islands and building islands and then occupying them, perhaps because the creation of artificial islands challenges our understandings of the sea as an ‘untameable’ mass beyond human control.
Through the process of land reclamation, China’s assertion of ownership over the island and surrounding waters has been immediately strengthened, whether justified or not. The process of creation gives the creator ownership rights over the created object. By extension, ownership rights over the island automatically gives China ownership rights over the water in which the island is situated. Moreover,the occupation of land appears far more tangible than the occupation of sea. Reclamation becomes the solution to transcend the limitations imposed by the sea. In transforming water to land, the fluid nature of the site is overcome by the creation and occupation of an immovable physical site. At the very least, they are much more permanent than the presence of vessels, and buoys or concrete markers which are susceptible to removal, destruction, decay, and subject to the sea’s currents and mobilities.
The development of artificial islands also opens up additional dimensions to project power. While naval power has been traditionally used to exert dominance over the seas, the creation of island, and airfields at sea, would allow China to establish its air presence in the remote region (located more than 900km from Hainan Island) and to create a permanent base from which to deploy.
While the act of creating artificial islands is no longer a new phenomenon, this development is novel for its strategic objectives; hence the controversy that surrounds it. All in all, the result is that China has been able to cement its presence and strengthen its position in a hotly contested region, without having fired a single shot. While controversial, China’s use of land reclamation to assert its claims is undeniably far less provocative than the exercise of military force to achieve the same objectives.
By Shan Kwok. Shan is a Political Science graduate and current student on the MSc Geopolitics and Security programme. She is interested in issues of security, in particular relating to ownership of natural resources, as well as the politics of identity.