South China Sea sees significant construction

Construction on Johnstone South Reef, Spratly Islands Construction on Johnstone South Reef, Spratly Islands Jane’s Defence Weekly
19 Feb
2015
New satellite imagery reveals Chinese advances in ongoing land reclamation project in the South China Sea

Two hundred nautical miles (370km). That is how much adjacent ocean – and whatever else happens to be in it – each coastal country can claim as its own territory, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The official name for these ocean territories are Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).

One of the principle situations when this ruling has made an appearance in recent years has involved the underwater search for resources, especially oil and gas deposits. The South China Sea has quickly become one of the key battlegrounds for testing the strength and flexibility of this rule, as several Asian nations squabble over whose territory the South China Sea falls into, and therefore, who stands to benefit from the extraction of those fossil fuels.

While the islands off northern Taiwan in the East China Sea (Senkaku if you are Japanese, Diaoyutai if you are Chinese) have hit the headlines most prominently, disputes in the South China Sea have primarily focused on the Spratly Islands, a collection of over 750 reefs, atolls and islands scattered across the sea, and claimed in part or in full by six different countries; China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

mapSpratly Islands, South China Sea. Image: The Wall Street Journal

China is going one step further than the rest in its quest to claim ownership of the whole sea; reclaiming new land around the Spratly Islands. New satellite footage has now revealed the extent to which these land reclamation projects have progressed.

satelliteGaven Reef, Spratly Islands. Image: Jane's Defence Weekly

The above images show how Gaven Reef, which used to be above water only at low tide, has developed from shallow reefs in March 2014, into 75,000 sq metres of fully established land by January 2015. Similar development have been sighted at numerous neighbouring reefs, including Johnson South Reef, located only 194 nautical miles from the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Analysts report that the new islands are home to piers, airstrips, buildings, and various other facilities.

Last month, Lieutenant General Gregorio Pio Catapang of the Philippines claimed that China’s island developments were ‘50 per cent complete’. The Philippines is currently awaiting the verdict of a complaint submitted via the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), arguing that China has breached the UNCLOS, of which both countries are signatories. The ITLOS will decide its verdict in late 2015 or early 2016.

While countries are fully entitled to construct artificial islands within their own EEZs, it is unclear whether China’s actions, significantly more than 200 nautical miles from the Chinese shore, justify legitimate ownership of the surrounding waters of the South China Sea. The UNCLOS clearly states that: ‘Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.’

China’s claims to the South China Sea date back as far as 1947, when what was then the Republic of China issued its infamous ‘11-dotted line’; a map showing what the government of the time believed to be rightfully China’s territory. Although China as a country has undergone many significant changes during the past sixty-eight years, that line and claimed territory has remained largely unchanged.

dotted-line1947 Republic of China map depicting China’s claims to the South China Sea

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.