China Naval Chief Conducts ‘Unprecedented’ Survey of Disputed Reefs

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China Naval Chief Conducts ‘Unprecedented’ Survey of Disputed Reefs

PLA Navy commander Wu Shengli conducted a survey of Beijing’s reclamation projects in the disputed South China Sea.

China Naval Chief Conducts ‘Unprecedented’ Survey of Disputed Reefs
Credit: DoD photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

Mainland China’s naval chief conducted an “unprecedented” survey of a number of disputed islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan announced this week.

Lee Hsiang-chou, the director general of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, told the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and Defense Committee on Wednesday that late last month Adm. Wu Shengli, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, took a weeklong trip to survey China’s reclamation works on five of the disputed Spratly Islands. Lee said that China currently has seven such construction projects in the Spratly islands, five of which have been approved since Xi Jinping took office.

“”The goal of [the reclamation effort] is to turn islets into ramparts and islands into battlefields,” Lee told Taiwanese lawmakers, according to the  South China Morning Post.

Lee’s comments were first reported by Taiwanese media outlets.

The reports also said that Lee informed lawmakers that Xi Jinping had personally approved the massive reclamation campaign that China is currently undertaking in the Spratly Islands, which has been adamantly opposed by other regional powers. Besides China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia claim the Spratly Islands in whole or in part.

“All the moves indicated [the mainland] has an overall strategic plan to claim sovereignty in the South China Sea,” Lee said.

China is currently in the process of transforming the five reefs it controls in the Spratly Islands into islands from which it can project military power. As the BBC, which visited one of the reefs, reported last month, “At the beginning of this year, the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands consisted of a handful of outposts, a collection of concrete blockhouses perched atop coral atolls. Now it is building substantial new islands on five different reefs.”

The report added, “Millions of tons of rock and sand have been dredged up from the sea floor and pumped into the [Johnson South] reef to form new land…. China seems to be preparing to build an air base with a concrete runway long enough for fighter jets to take off and land.”

As The Diplomat has previously noted, the reclamation projects in the reefs and islands in the Spratly Islands are aimed at enabling the PLA to maintain a stronger presence throughout the vast waters that Beijing claims. In particular, they are a prelude to Beijing establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, a move which the U.S. and regional powers have already warned China against doing.

The reclamation effort is also aimed at strengthening the international legal basis of China’s nine-dashed line claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), islands generate a 12 nautical mile territorial sea as well as a 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, partially submerged reef and rocks only generate a 12 nm territorial sea and no EEZ, while fully submerged reefs and rocks do not generate either. By transforming submerged reefs into islands, China is seeking to stake out EEZ claims over the reefs.