Wednesday, April 29, 2015

China's infrastructure-building binge in South China Sea

Note: This photo-essay appeared in a slightly different version under the title 'Infrastructure-building binge in South China Sea' in the 24-30 Apr 2015 issue of the FilAm Star, the weekly 'newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America,' published in San Francisco, CA. This author/blogger is the Manila-based Special News/Photo Correspondent of the paper.

Reefs in the Spratlys that China has occupied.  Infographics by the AFP Public Affairs Office.

“We call on China to stop the reclamation activities and to be mindful of its responsibilities as a claimant state and an important member of the international community,” Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, Jr. expressed during the press conference held on 20 April before the start of Balikatan 2015, the US-Philippines military exercises.

Catapang showed the latest images of the massive reclamation activities by China in the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea: Mabini (Johnson in the US Board of Geographic Names) Reef, Chigua (Kennan) Reef, Calderon (Cuarteron) Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, Burgos (Gaven) Reef,  Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef.  All of these reefs are claimed by the Philippines, and Panganiban Reef is within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Image of Mischief [Panganiban] Reef as of 17 Mar 2015 shows artificial land
formation, dredgers and construction equipment, among others. 
Photo Credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative /DigitalGlobe.

Panganiban Reef is claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Taiwan. “When it was first occupied by China,” according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), “it was completely submerged at high tide. Therefore, it likely does not qualify as an island under Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The Philippines had vigorously protested China’s construction of structures there since 1995. The “octagonal wooden makeshifts” of 1995 upgraded to “a single, permanent, multi-story building in 1998, and to a “three-storey concrete building” in 2014, AMTI reported.

It is possible that Panganiban Reef has been transformed into a naval base capable of accommodating one People’s Liberation (PLA) Army Navy at a time. “In 2014, Philippine fishermen began to report increased patrols by the PLA Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard, impinging on their ability to fish in the area,” AMTI said.

AMTI noted that images taken from January to March 2015 showed that dredging, reclamation and construction activities have been going on in Panganiban Reef:  “ The southern platform has been further expanded using sand recovered from the reef’s southern entrance. The entrance itself has been expanded to a width of approximately 275 meters [as of 16 March 2015].”

Progress of China’s airstrip construction on Fiery Cross [Kagitingan] Reef as of 
02 Apr 2015.  Photo Credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative /DigitalGlobe.

Except for two rocks, according to the island tracker of AMTI, Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross) is submerged at high tide. That has entirely changed after China started reclamation activities in August 2014 although it had been there since 1987 when it agreed to build weather monitoring stations for a UNESCO project.

“Between August and November [2014],”AMTI reported, “Chinese dredgers created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide. ... Fiery Cross may now be more than three times larger than the Taiwan-held Itu Aba, formerly the largest of the Spratly Islands.”

China’s construction works on Calderon [Cuarteron] Reef as of 18 Feb 2015.  
Photo Credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.                

Kagitingan Reef has turned into an artificial island. AMTI noted that “China has already constructed in excess of 60 permanent or semi-permanent rectangular buildings along on the northern side [and] at least 20 structures are visible on the southern side of the island.”

China is also building a 3,100 meter airstrip there. According to AMTI, this length of runway “can accommodate almost any type of aircraft [like transport, fighters, early warning and UAVs] that China could want to land [there],”and furthermore, it is also “installing port facilities, which may be capable of docking military tankers.”

China’s construction works on Chigua [Kennan] Reef as of 19 Feb 2015. 
Photo Credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.

A naval base on Panganiban and an airstrip on Kagitingan certainly lend military advantages to China. These could be bullying rams for them press their territorial claims.

In the keynote speech of Ambassador Cui Tiankai at the International Conference on China-US Cooperation in Global Security Affairs in Washington DC on 16 April 2015, he had these to say about their “maintenance and construction work” in the disputed areas:

“... Let me reiterate here that such work is well within China’s sovereignty. It does not impact or target any other country. The main purpose is to improve the functions of facilities there so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea. Such services will include shelter for ships, navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation, fishery service and many others. Emphasis will also be put on marine environment protection.

China’s construction works of Gaven [Burgos] Reef as of 29 Jan 2015. 
Photo Credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.

“Of course there will be defense facilities. This is only natural and necessary and they are purely for defensive purposes. If these facilities could not even defend themselves, how can they render service to others? If China could not safeguard its own sovereignty, how can it shoulder greater responsibilities for international stability? Therefore, building-up of China’s capabilities in the South China Sea provides public goods to all and serves the interests of maintaining security, stability and freedom of navigation there.”

The anxiety over these Chinese activities is expressed by Catapang: “We also believe that China’s massive reclamation activities will cause tensions among claimant countries not only because it could deter freedom of navigation but also due to its possible military purposes.”

China’s reclamation activities on Kagitingan [Fiery Cross] Reef as of 28 Jan 2015. 
Photo credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.

China has dispatched fleets of fishermen, possibly militia types, to their occupied reefs. It has also driven away not only Filipino fishermen but also those from the other claimant countries.

 “We are saddened hearing the reports that China has driven away Filipino fishermen near these reclamation sites and also in Bajo de Masinloc, denying our people of their own fishing areas which are the sources of their livelihood,” Catapang said.

The environmental toll of China’s reclamations:  “destruction of 300 acres of coral reef systems [that] is estimated to lead to economic losses to coastal states valued at US$100 million annually”, Catapang emphasized. “It is worth remembering that China has tolerated environmentally harmful fishing practices by its fishermen who are now occupying Bajo De Masinloc, a Philippine territory that was grabbed and now being dominated. These bad fishing practices are violations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”

China’s construction works on Mabini [Johnson] Reef as of 30 Jan 2015. 
Photo Credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.

Every Filipino should “support the government’s move to protest the ongoing construction works which clearly violated ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct in which the signatories agreed to resolve the territorial dispute peacefully and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes,” in the words of Gen. Catapang.

Out there at the West Philippine Sea is the rusting BRP-57 Sierra Madre, which ran aground near the Ayungin Shoal in 1999. It is our unlikely defender of a small piece of our territory despite the taunts of the Chinese Coast Guards.

China’s reclamation activities on Zamora [Subi] Reef as of 30 Jan 2015. 
Photo Credit: AFP Public Affairs Office.

It looks like that’s the best we can do at the moment while we wait for the decision of the Arbitration Tribunal. Hopefully, that will be our slingshot to stop the Chinese Goliath in its occupation of all the disputed rocks, reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

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