Island-building and the future of disputed sea
Perhaps we don’t have to worry about the rising sea levels as a result of climate change, after all. We can “outland” it by pouring sand on tiny islands and coastal cities. The recent experiment in the South China Sea is proving it works.
The South China Sea has been a flashpoint of international tension for some time now, but the most recent dispute this year involves something entirely new — an “island building” project. China is virtually building a new island there (Spratly Archipelago) by digging sand from the nearby seabed and piling it onto coral reefs. The once submerged reefs are now morphing into parcels of land on which an airfield is constructed and presumably military equipment is deployed.
These reefs have been also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, and some of them have also sporadically engaged in the land reclamation in the archipelago, but the speed and scale of the Chinese construction this time gives the term a new definition.
Criticism has been increasing. In a recent meeting, G-7 countries warned that the island building was a violation of international law. Tensions were also running high at the recently concluded 14th Asia Security Summit in Singapore. China’s response was simple: the reefs are Chinese territory and China is simply exercising its lawful sovereignty over them.
The creation of a new island, if we may call it that, is an attempt to take advantage of the special status given to an island and nearby maritime zones under international law. International law — the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — indeed accords a significantly different treatment to a submerged reef (officially called low-tide elevation) and an island. Submerged reefs do not allow for any maritime zones of their own, while an island commands a territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf — a vast area of water indeed.
Moreover, in the territorial sea, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight can be controlled or restricted. Construction of airfields and military-related facilities on the new island would enable the assertion of such controls. On top of that, an additional layer of Air Defense Identification Zone may be contemplated as seen in a recent video clip on YouTube featuring communication between a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese ground controller. No wonder other countries in the neighborhood respond sensitively.
Placing an island in the middle of an ocean, if you can, therefore comes with a package of sizable benefits. If anything, this seems to be the most lucrative infrastructure investment program that a country can consider.
The problem of the island- building scheme, however, is that the definition of an “island” under the UNCLOS is confined to “a naturally formed” one. As such, a man-made island, however large it is, does not fall under the category, and so is unable to enjoy the rights accorded by the convention.
When the G-7 countries mentioned a violation of international law, they must have been referring to this aspect of the situation. While the technological development in the dredging and construction sectors has made it feasible to turn a submerged maritime area into a man-made island, the U.N. convention is clear that an island, to be legally recognized, should be a naturally formed one.
Irrespective of the legal status of the new islands, once created they can become “power hubs” from which regulatory authority or sometimes military influence can be projected. As other countries pledge not to recognize the status of a new island by exercising complete freedom of overflight and navigation as before, a new level of tension is feared to be introduced to the already volatile maritime area. As the South China Sea is a key sea line of communication for Northeast Asia, escalation of tension there is not a good sign for us at all.