China is building up several uninhabited territories in the South China Sea, according to Western officials, an unprecedented move they say is part of Beijing’s long-running efforts to bolster disputed land claims in an area crucial to global trade.
While China had previously built reefs, islands and disputed land formations in the region it long controlled — and militarized ports, runways and other infrastructure — officials provided images of what they described as the first known cases of a country doing so. on land it does not already occupy. They cautioned that recent construction activity in Beijing indicates an attempt to advance a new status quo, though it is too early to tell whether China will seek to militarize those sites.
Fishing fleets that operate as de facto naval militia under the control of authorities in Beijing have carried out construction activities in four uninhabited areas of the Spratly Islands over the past decade, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive information. They said some sand bars and other formations in the area have expanded more than 10 times in size in recent years.
Satellite images shared with Bloomberg News of what they said was a Chinese naval vessel unloading an amphibious hydraulic rig used for land reclamation projects at Eldad Reef in North Spratly in 2014. Since then, new land formations have appeared above the water over the past year, according to Officials said the images showed large holes, debris piles and backhoe tracks at a site that was only partially exposed at high tide.
They said similar activities also took place on Lanquiam Cay, better known as Panata Island in the Philippines, where a feature was reinforced with a new ocean wall over the course of just two months last year. Other images they provided showed physical changes at both Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay, where previously submerged features are now permanently located above the high tide line.
Asked to respond to the allegations, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing said: “The relevant report is made out of thin air.”
A Chinese naval militia ship unloads a rig in Eldad Reef in 2014 in this satellite image obtained by Bloomberg News.
China asserts its rights to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1947 map showing mysterious markings that have since become known as the “Nine Point Line”. It has previously said that it has a sovereign right to build on its lands.
Tensions between China and the other claimants in the South China Sea – the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei – have been simmering for years as Beijing has invested more in naval vessels and coast guards to enforce its claims. Historically small and uninhabited, the Spratly Islands have assumed greater geopolitical importance since they straddle one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and could have military significance, especially if tensions over Taiwan lead to a regional war.
China’s actions have prompted other countries in the region to increase defense spending and also undertake reclamation work. Vietnam expanded dredging and landfill work at several Spratly outposts this year, according to a report released this month by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative.
This month, the Philippines protested against Chinese ships crowding two reefs near Red Bank, a disputed area where the two countries discussed a possible joint plan for oil and gas exploration. Last year, the Philippines also mustered ships on Whitsun Reef, located 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the country, after more than 200 Chinese militia ships were spotted in a similar mustering maneuver.
Satellite images obtained by Bloomberg News depict physical changes to a layered land feature in Sandy Cay between 2009 and 2021.
Long before the recent escalation in tensions, Beijing signed a non-binding “Declaration of Conduct” with Southeast Asian nations in 2002 that called on parties to refrain from “dwelling on currently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, islets, and other features.” “.
In 2016, a UN-backed international court ruled in a case brought by the Philippines that China’s allegations had no legal basis. China rejected the ruling, saying the court had no jurisdiction, and has continued to send thousands of “fishing” vessels to the disputed land features.
The United States has repeatedly criticized China’s actions in the South China Sea, and has sought to challenge its territorial claims with so-called freedom of navigation operations.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said this month that the US is building a more lethal force in the Indo-Pacific as part of efforts to make sure China does not dominate the region.
He said on December 3 that China is “the only country that has the will and increasingly the strength to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences”. to allow that to happen.”
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by the NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)
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