China’s Lighthouses in the Spratlys

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China’s Lighthouses in the Spratlys

The legal significance of China’s lighthouse construction on two features in the Spratlys.

In May 2015, China began construction of lighthouses on two of the features it occupies in the Spratlys, Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef. The lighthouses, employing cylindrical and cone-cylindrical designs, respectively, are 50-meter-high towers constructed of reinforced concrete that officially began operation on October 9. Each tower has been designed to cast its white light out to a distance of 22 nautical miles on an eight-second cycle and has a 4.5-meter lantern on its uppermost level. During a press conference the day after formal operation commenced, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying stated that China would continue to construct other civilian and public facilities on relevant features in the Spratlys so as to better serve coastal nations in the South China Sea and passing vessels from around the world. Official statements clearly indicate the primary aim of erecting these lighthouses is to further navigational safety, but then why is it that China is constructing approximately 3,000-meter-long runways on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs while choosing to instead erect lighthouses on Cuarteron and Johnson South Reefs?

The Significance of Lighthouses in UNCLOS

A review of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions for using straight baselines to determine the limits of the territorial sea shows that when selecting base points, in accordance with Article 7, Paragraph 4, “Straight baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or except in instances where the drawing of baselines to and from such elevations has received general international recognition.” In establishing baselines for archipelagic states, Article 47, Paragraph 4 stipulates, “Such baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or where a low-tide elevation is situated wholly or partly at a distance not exceeding the breadth of the territorial sea from the nearest island.”

In other words, for countries in general and archipelagic states in particular, it is only through construction of a lighthouse above sea level that can allow low-tide elevations, on which these structures are erected, to be considered as starting or ending points of a baseline. Therefore, there is no need for China to rely on the construction of lighthouses on Cuarteron and Johnson South to establish its baseline. As such, China’s construction in the Spratlys cannot simply be a matter of delimiting its territorial sea. 

True Objective: Judicial Precedent

China’s construction of lighthouses in the Spratlys goes beyond considerations of the significance of these structures under UNCLOS. More of a concern for China is the safeguarding of its territorial sovereignty. In its 2002 decision in “Case Concerning Sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipidan,” a suit brought by Indonesia against Malaysia, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that “the construction and operation of lighthouses and navigational aids are not normally considered manifestations of State authority.” It recalls, however, that in its judgment in the case concerning Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain) it stated as follows:

“…The construction of navigational aids…can be legally relevant in the case of very small islands…taking into account the size…the activities carried out by Bahrain on that island must be considered sufficient to support Bahrain’s claim that it has sovereignty over it.”

What concerned the ICJ in the later case was that in 1962 and 1963 Indonesian authorities failed to remind the colonial authorities in North Borneo, and later in Malaysia after that nation’s independence, that the lighthouses had been constructed on what was then considered Indonesian territory. For this reason, the ICJ ultimately awarded the two islands to Malaysia.

The construction of lighthouses in the Spratlys is not behavior peculiar to China; Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all erected lighthouses in the Spratlys. Although lighthouses do aid navigation and improve safety, and can be erected on low-tide elevations to permit such low-tide elevations to be used as starting or ending points for baselines delimiting the territorial sea, from the perspectives of geographic location and patterns of Chinese behavior, what appears to be more important for China is the further affirmation of territorial sovereignty. Under UNCLOS, the status of Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef as naturally formed areas of land faces a comparatively large challenge. There is clearly significance to the construction of lighthouses on these features, especially as the ICJ has held this type of activity to be legally relevant. These lighthouses are merely one manifestation of China’s efforts to strengthen the legal basis of its claim. In the future, China will continue to construct buildings and fortifications in the South China Sea, including comprehensive efforts to extend stable wireless network coverage, as it is currently doing in the Paracels. These endeavors demonstrate China’s complete and comprehensive dedication to upholding its sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Ting-Hui Lin is Vice President of Taiwan Brain Trust.