China has often had satellite imagery used against it as it built artificial islands in the South China Sea. This week, though, it’s China’s turn: a Chinese media outlet, China Youth Net, is using satellite images to enjoy some schadenfreude at Vietnam’s expense.
First, the site points to the satellite imagery as evidence that Vietnam “illegally” constructed artificial islands on “China’s Nanhua Reef,” one of the disputed features in the Spratlys (known as Cornwallis South Reef in English). China Youth Net said Vietnam had dredged up sand and built two “man-made islands” in the South China Sea. In the images, a trench (purportedly causing by Vietnam’s dredging) is clearly visible in the water around the feature.
However, the article then claims most of the sand was finally washed away by the ocean – “because of Vietnam’s low technological level” during the reclamation process. As evidence, China Youth Net provided satellite images of two unnamed reefs, from August and December 2016. In the December photos, much of the landmass has indeed washed away. The site concludes that last December’s Typhoon Jasmine “upset Vietnam’s calculations” by “blowing away” its artificial islands.
The images posted by China Youth Net were highly zoomed in, making it difficult to confirm the reclamation work was in fact being done on Cornwallis South Reef. However, a separate satellite image of Cornwallis South Reef taken on December 7, 2015, according to the Chinese website Baike, shows the entire feature with the two areas of reclamation in context. The Diplomat was able to independently confirm that some reclamation work on Cornwallis South Reef had been washed away by a storm in December.
The full feature is an atoll in a long, roughly oval shape—Vietnam was reclaiming land in two separate spots on the southwestern and southeastern ends, according to the Baike imagery. Other satellite images circulating on Chinese websites suggested the reclamation began in April 2015.
People’s Daily, which also picked up the story, said the total area of reclaimed land was 0.03 square kilometers. According to the Digital Gazetteer of the Spratly Islands, Cornwallis South Reef is “naturally above water only at low tide.”
When Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang was asked about the reports in a regular press conference, he told reporters that China’s “position remains unchanged: We have indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters.”
Lu added, “We maintain that disputes with neighboring countries over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands should be resolved through bilateral and friendly consultations.”
The China Youth Net post wasn’t all that interested in slamming Vietnam for carrying out the land reclamation, however. Instead, the piece proudly concluded that China’s method of building artificial islands – by sucking sand up rather than dredging it from the seafloor the old fashioned way – was superior, as it resulted in taller islands better able to withstand waves. “Island-building isn’t as simple as it looks,” the article said. “It’s an extremely complicated integrated engineering project that tests a country’s comprehensive national power.”
“Not everyone can turn a small reef into an airport on the ocean like China did.”