China Completes Island Construction, Will Now Build Military Facilities

“I’m an amateur student of history and I’m reminded of ... how Germany was testing the waters and what the response was by various other European powers... But unfortunately, up to the annexation of the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the annexation of the entire country of Czechoslovakia, nobody said stop. If somebody said stop to Hitler at that point in time, or to Germany at that time, would we have avoided World War II.”

That piece of revisionist history is brought to you by Benigno Aquino and is excerpted from a speech the Philippine President gave to the Japanese parliament earlier this month. 

Aquino was of course referring to China’s controversial land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. Beijing’s construction of some 2,000 acres of new sovereign territory atop reefs in the Spratly archipelago has alarmed the country’s neighbors and drawn sharp condemnation from Washington, with President Obama accusing China of “throwing elbows” and using its size and relative to power to “bully” nations with competing South China Sea claims and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter assuring Asia Pac allies that the US will sail and navigate wherever it pleases. 

For its part, China has ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying its Navy and Air Force will adopt “offensive” strategies if necessary and claiming that, if threatened, it will establish a no-fly zone over its new islands. The US also claims Beijing had at one point positioned artillery in the Spratlys although it has apparently been either moved or hidden since being spotted by a PA-8 Poseidon spy plane. 

The Philippines, in an effort to counter a series of Chinese documentary films that aired in 2013, ran a video called “Karapatan sa Dagat” or “Maritime Rights” on Independence Day. Reuters has more:

"Our objective is to inform our people," Charles Jose, the foreign ministry spokesman, said adding they hoped to "rally support of our people behind our Philippine government's policy and action".


 

The Philippines has filed an arbitration case against China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to be rich in energy resources and where $5 trillion ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei,

 

Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims on the sea.

 

In 2013, China's state-run CCTV network aired an eight-part documentary called "Journey on the South China Sea", a rare peak into how Beijing was trying to consolidate its claims in the disputed sea.

 

The "video war" comes as China rapidly expands its footprint in the South China Sea, constructing at least one airstrip and other military facilities on reclaimed land in the Spratly islands.

Now, the Chinese foreign ministry is out with a statement indicating the country has nearly completed its construction projects. While this could be viewed as a sign that China has effectively backed down, albeit on its own terms and at its discretion (i.e. saying the project is “complete” is something different than saying the project has been halted due to international pressure), that will likely come as no consolation to the US and its allies because even as China signaled an end to its dredging activities, it also implicitly admitted that it will continue to build military facilities on the islands, although this was buried in the fine print.

“Apart from satisfying the need of necessary military defense, the main purpose of China's construction activities is to meet various civilian demands and better perform China's international obligations,” the foreign ministry said, before saying that “after the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.”

Since one of the “relevant functional requirements” is “satisfying the need of necessary military defense,” it seems China will continue to construct just the type of facilities on the islands that have become the subject of intense controversy. WSJ has more color:

China said it is shifting work on disputed South China Sea islets from the dredging of land to the construction of military and other facilities as it pushes forward with a program that has aggravated tensions with the U.S. and neighbors.

 


 

Analysts say the imminent end to China’s island-building work could signal a willingness to seek compromise with Washington and rival claimants in the South China Sea, even as it demonstrates Beijing’s ability to unilaterally dictate terms in the long-standing dispute.

 

“This is a step toward halting land reclamation, which the U.S. has demanded, and at the same time, China can tell its people that it has accomplished what it wanted to do,” said Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

 

“China unilaterally started the land reclamation and now China is unilaterally stopping it,” Mr. Huang said. “China is showing that—as a major power—it can control escalation, that it has the initiative, and that it can do what it sees fit for its interests.”


The Philippines’ Foreign Ministry said it is awaiting official confirmation from Beijing on its Tuesday statement, while the Vietnamese and Malaysian foreign ministries and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

China’s statement came on the final day for Beijing to submit comments to an international arbitration tribunal that is considering the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea.

For its part, China wants nothing to do with arbitration proceedings in The Hague, contends The United Nations has no jurisdiction, and says it will not recognize the tribunal's verdict.

In other words, expect tensions to rise over the coming months as the supposed "completion" of Beijing's "sand castle" building simply means China will now move into the next phase of development which is apparently the installation of military facilities.

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Full statement from Chinese foreign ministry:

The construction activities on the Nansha islands and reefs fall within the scope of China's sovereignty, and are lawful, reasonable and justified. They are not targeted at any other country, do not affect the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries in accordance with international law in the South China Sea, nor have they caused or will they cause damage to the marine ecological system and environment in the South China Sea, and are thus beyond reproach.

It is learned from relevant Chinese competent departments that, as planned, the land reclamation project of China's construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands will be completed in the upcoming days.

Apart from satisfying the need of necessary military defense, the main purpose of China's construction activities is to meet various civilian demands and better perform China's international obligations and responsibilities in the areas such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, meteorological observation, ecological environment conservation, navigation safety as well as fishery production service. After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.

China is committed to the path of peaceful development. She follows a foreign policy of forging friendship and partnership with her neighbours, and a defense policy that is defensive in nature. China remains a staunch force for regional peace and stability. While firmly safeguarding her territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, China will continue to dedicate herself to resolving relevant disputes with relevant states directly concerned, in accordance with international law, through negotiation and consultation on the basis of respecting historical facts, pushing forward actively the consultation on a "Code of Conduct in the South China Sea" together with ASEAN member states within the framework of fully and effectively implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. China will continue to uphold the freedom of navigation as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.