Recently, satellite photos have been released purporting to show the development of a concrete runway in the contested waters of the South China Sea. As with the aerial photographs taken by a U2 spy plane over Cuba in the early 1960s, the released images have unleashed febrile commentary about China’s intentions on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago. Accompanied by labels pointing to dredging and construction activity, analysts have concluded that there are plans afoot to develop a 10,000 feet long runway capable of hosting military aircraft. While not as long as the US runway on the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, this investment in geographical engineering is significant.
The current situation in the South China Sea is complex and involves not just the disputed Spratly Islands, which are the subject of contention for China, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the entire archipelago. Further north of the South China Sea, the Paracels islands, reefs and shoals are the object of dispute between Vietnam and China. There is an ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Reef as well.
Considered a strategic and resource zone by China, the Beijing government’s maritime boundary claims are considerable and overlap with the exclusive economic zones of other coastal states. Maps play a crucial role in the Chinese geopolitical imagination and the South China Sea has been represented by a nine dash line that incorporates around 80% of the maritime region. First noted in 1914, it was updated in 1947 as an eleven dash line but two dashes were removed from the Gulf of Tomkin in 1953. While there is some ambiguity about what the dashes represent, there is no dobut that China believes that it enjoys sovereignty over the atolls and that it possesses historic rights to marine exploitation. In 2013, Philippines challenged China via the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal and Vietnam has also made representations against China’s maritime assertions. The problem for the Philippines is that even it got some sort of supportive statement criticizing Chinese activities in the South China Sea, there is little prospect of forcing China to change tack.
What is interesting about the recent photographs regarding runway development on the Fiery Cross reef is the role of dredging in the re-engineering of the reef itself.
A submerged or partially hidden reef is being reclaimed and treated increasingly like an island territory, capable of supporting human activity. Under UNCLOS (Article 121), this transformation is significant; “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf”. Islands, on the other hand, can generate territorial seas, contiguous zones and exclusive economic zones. As Scott Kirsch noted in the context of the US scientist and policy maker Edward Teller and Project Plowshare, ‘geographical engineering’ was an important element in the US Cold War geopolitical imagination. In this case, Teller believed that the Alaskan Arctic could be re-sculptued by nuclear explosions in order to produce a new landscape more conducive to strategic planning.
While the Chinese, unlike Edward Teller, have never proposed nuclear weapons to re-engineer the reefs and corals of the South China Sea, reclamation remains a significant element in this current sovereignty project. The dredger and the practice of dredging are vital. Rock and sand dredged from the seabed are being pumped into the atolls and reefs. Fiery Cross Reef was not the only cause of concern for analysts. In September 2014, the Philippines complained that China used dredged materials in order to bolster its presence on Johnson South reef in the archipelago. All of which serves as a reminder about how intensely material this ongoing conflict over the South China Sea is. Rock and sand are acting as literally ballast for sovereignty and security projects, providing the earthly foundations for China’s claims to be acting as a de facto coastal state.
More generally, dredging has been a widely used accomplish to sovereignty projects and to exacerbate disputes over rivers, outcrops, fishing grounds and strategic waterways. Coastal and riparian states anxious to ensure that their waterways are navigable such as the Shatt al-Arab maritime region in the Persian/Arabic Gulf. Thailand and Mynanmar were locked in a dispute about the role of a Burmese dredging crew in the disputed Moei river in 1998. Further back in time, the UK and France disputed the use of seabed dredging for the purpose of oyster harvesting in the nineteenth century. Agreement was eventually reached regarding fisheries management off the northern French coastline but disputes continue (2012 was a notable example) over dredging and scallop fishing. More recently, the Gibraltar government was accused in 2013 of creating an artificial reef on the seabed in order to deter Spanish dredge nets used to harvest scallops. Rachael Squire has reflected on that case in a previous blog. Contrary to the Chinese case where dredging is used to transform a reef like area into a island like territory designed to bolster China’s sovereignty, the Mediterranean example points to how an artificial reef was established in order to prevent further dredging of Gibraltar’s territorial sovereignty.
Source: Gibraltar Port Authority
And as the collective experiences of Nicaragua and Costa Rica demonstrate, the role of dredging can continue to aggravate international relations between parties. In the case of the disputed San Juan river border region, the Costa Rican government accuses the Nicaraguans of long term damage to its protected wetlands at the mouth of the river system. Despite the intervention of the International Court of Justice in 2011, the two sides continue to argue over the demarcation of their international boundary, and Nicaragua stands accused of using dredging in a destructive and aggressive manner in its pursuit of artificial canal construction. Nicaragua, on the other hand, stipulates that Costa Rica violated its sovereign territory via the use of police boats. The dispute is before the ICJ again this year and University of Nottingham geographer Colin Thorne is testifying on behalf of the government of Costa Rica.
So while media and political attention is on China at the moment regarding dredging and reclamation projects in the South China Sea, dredging techniques remain an important element in border management and maritime security projects. As Peter Myers noted there is a politics of dirt, and we could easily add river silt and seabed materials to this discussion. We can think about how dirt is displaced on the one hand in river dredging to accommodate enhanced mobility and accumulated on the other hand in island reclamation necessary for the construction of a runway. And all of this reminds us that material objects such as dirt, sand and silt are vital accomplices to the sovereignty of states and the security of their borders. And as with the recent Chinese example, Costa Rica also used satellite imagery to draw attention to the impact of Nicaraguan dredging of the San Juan river region.
All of which reminds me of Stuart Elden‘s recent work asking critical geopolitics scholars to think about geopolitics as literally a politics of the earth (or in this case dirt, silt and sand).