In recent months, China has taken to building artificial islands in disputed regions of the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims. In the Spratlys and Paracels, Beijing is warping the landscape by carrying out land reclamation activities. China’s reasons for pursuing its island-building activities have been varied, but overall, they have done little to assuage the concerns of observers in the region and the United States.
As The Diplomat reported earlier this month, China has cited a variety of reasons to undertake its “maintenance and construction work” on these island facilities. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign minister, noted in early April that the activities (in the Spratlys at least) had the following goals:
[O]ptimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China’s international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas. (My colleague Shannon Tiezzi has a more detailed deconstruction of these remarks here.)
The list of reasons formally provided by Beijing range from the benevolent (disaster prevention) to the anodyne (metereological observation). The primary concern among China’s neighbors, particularly among South China Sea disputants including Vietnam and the Philippines, is that these islands and their corresponding facilities could be used to stage military operations in the region that would effectively prevent anyone but China from administering the disputed territories.
China’s rhetorical strategy on its land reclamation activities has been in flux. As Shannon noted in her earlier analysis of Hua’s comments, the Chinese government’s approach was to sideline the actual purpose of the reclamation activities and tautologically describe them as “normal,” “lawful,” “reasonable,” and “justifiable.” That was the approach in March. In early April, Hua expanded on the purposes of the activities, as outlined above.
Now, going into May, Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) East and South Sea Fleets and commander in chief of the PLAN, is taking yet a new approach. Wu told the United States’ Admiral Johnathan Greenert that the facilities China is developing on disputed territories in the South China Sea could be used for combined humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. He added that China’s activities “will not threaten freedom of navigation and overflight.” The remarks were described as “unusually conciliatory” by the Wall Street Journal.
Wu’s remarks come after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a rare show of unity on South China Sea issues, issued a statement noting that China’s reclamation activities could “undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” In return, China noted its “grave concern.”
Despite Wu’s conciliatory opening, the United States remains unconvinced. The U.S. State Department’s acting deputy spokesman Jeff Rathke conveyed Washington’s disinterest in Wu’s suggestions, categorically stating that “Building facilities on reclaimed land in disputed areas will not contribute to peace and stability in the region.” “This is true even if, as some Chinese officials have stated, the facilities in question were used for civilian disaster response purposes,” he added. “If there is a desire to reduce tensions, China could actively reduce them by taking concrete steps to halt land reclamation.”
With neither ASEAN nor the United States convinced of China’s self-stated benign intentions in the South China Sea, Beijing will face an uphill struggle in getting other states with interests in the region to let it have its way.