China’s insistence that it is no longer reclaiming land in the South China Sea for military purposes may have been authenticated by new satellite photos that appear to show its frenzied construction activity of the last few years has slowed.
Published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the photos indicate that Beijing has almost finished dredging work aimed at turning seven reefs it claims in the Spratly archipelago into what the newspaper termed “island fortresses”.
Taken between June and December 2017, they show that air and naval bases are almost ready on Kagitingan (also known as Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs.
Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, said in a separate article in the Beijing-based Global Times that China would conduct further reclamations, but they would mainly be for civilian use.
“Most of the construction on islands in the South China Sea was completed in 2015 and the pace then slowed. Civilian facility construction is the major focus of the South China Sea island building and the portion of defense deployment is relatively small,” Chen said.
The newspaper said the newly-created islands would be expanded through more dredging. A flotilla of huge barges and dredgers has been sucking up sand from shoals and piling it on reefs for reclamation at a frantic pace for several years.
Projects in 2017 alone covered an area of about 290,000 square meters, according to a report released in December on the nanhai.haiwainet.cn website, run by China’s National Marine Data and Information Service and the People’s Daily overseas edition. They included new airstrips, storage facilities, administrative buildings and large radar stations.
Global Times said the relationship between China and other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines had “becalmed in recent years”, creating a “golden opportunity” to enlarge and upgrade the islands. Tensions with the Philippines have dissipated, but China’s ties with Vietnam remain strained.
The close relationship with the Philippines may not endure, as President Rodrigo Duterte is facing domestic pressure to take a stronger stance on his country’s own territorial claims in the sea. Political rivals have accused him of bowing to China’s bullying.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the Straits Times last week the South China Sea was “much more calm now”, and that Singapore will help broker talks on a maritime code of conduct.
The US guided missile destroyer Hopper came within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) in January
Echoing Balakrishnan’s remarks on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was confident of being able to cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on maintaining peace and stability in the region.
Chinese military observers have warned that Beijing must strive to complete its defensive build-up in the South China Sea before the geopolitical climate shifts toward the US, which will hold more drills and patrols in the sea this year with nations like Taiwan and Vietnam.
Further incidents involving US and Chinese forces appear inevitable. The China News Service has revealed that the US guided missile destroyer Hopper came within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) in January, and was intercepted by the Chinese missile destroyer Huangshan. It said the US warship steered away from the waters after a brief stand-off.