The recent spate of reclamation in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has been reported and analyzed widely by SCS observers.
They indicate mammoth reclamation and construction efforts by China to incrementally expand tiny shoals into islands capable of hosting airstrips. This appears to be an interesting way in which China ensures that the nine dash line claim is reinforced by brick, sludge and mortar. When low tide elevations become islands with habitation and activity, they achieve a separate legal sanctity with their own territorial seas.
So, it is not only real estate to host capabilities, but these could provide controlling nation accompanying legal status. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website articlehas come up with some smart graphics that briefly and lucidly explain how reclamation progressed last year.
Of the four islands mentioned the building process, three are controlled by China. Most Chinese reclamations have ensured a real estate of one to nine lakh sq mts. China has no air strips in the region and the expansion of Fiery Cross Reef with nine lakh sqm appears to aim for that with the largest buildup in the area.
The overall aim appears to be to incrementally alter the status of reefs and shoals to islands. Low tide elevations which are not treated as ‘island’ get platforms and towers and slowly metamorphose into full-fledged islands with separate legal status.
What has intrigued some is that China is attempting to alter the status of islands under the same UNCLOS, which does not legally accommodate the ‘nine dash line’. China, according to analysts is yet to articulate what the precise nature and intent of its claims are. Ambiguity over what the dash lines imply seems a key strategy tool.
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