Is­land-build­ing and the fu­ture of dis­puted sea

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY LEE JAE- MIN

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.

‘Siz­able ben­e­fits’

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.

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