Xi Promises Dialogue While Chinese-Built Island May Change South China Sea Forever

China is reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands, increasing tensions in already disputed waters.

Contentious: Chinese fishing boats are shown in the Spratly Islands, which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Contentious: Chinese fishing boats are shown in the Spratly Islands, which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. Photo: AFP

Washington: Satellite images show China is building an island on a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands large enough to accommodate what could be its first offshore airstrip in the South China Sea, a leading defence publication said.

The construction has stoked concern that China may be converting disputed territory in the mineral-rich archipelago into military installations, adding to tensions in waters also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel near a drilling rig that China installed in disputed waters near Vietnam in May 2014. Credit Reuters 

Defence and security analysts IHS Jane’s said images it had obtained showed the Chinese-built island on the Fiery Cross Reef to be at least 3000 meters long and 200-300 metres wide, which it noted is “large enough to construct a runway and apron”.

The building work flies in the face of US calls for a freeze in provocative activity in the South China Sea, one of Asia’s biggest security issues. Concern is growing about an escalation in disputes even as claimants work to establish a code of conduct to resolve them.

Dredgers were also creating a harbour to the east of the reef “that would appear to be large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants,” it said.

The land reclamation project was China’s fourth in the Spratly Islands in the last 12 to 18 months and by far the largest, IHS Jane’s said. It based its findings on images taken on August 8 and November 14, showing that dredgers had created a land mass almost the entire length of the reef.

Beijing has rejected Washington’s call for all parties to halt activity in the disputed waters to ease tensions, saying it can build whatever its wants in the South China Sea.

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China’s defense minister said Friday he wants to enhance dialogue to manage disputes with his country’s neighbors, sounding a conciliatory note after years of sharpened confrontations over territorial claims on land and sea.

Chang Wanquan

The moves are in part to assuage suspicions about China’s fast-growing and traditionally secretive military, which is now adding nuclear-powered submarines, stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. The People’s Liberation Army is already the world’s largest standing military with 2.3 million members.

Chang said China’s booming defense budgets are aimed at modernizing and better cooperating with other countries on natural disasters and terrorism.

World leaders were recently treated to China’s charm offensive during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Here Philippine President Benigno Aquino III shares a light moment with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott during a tree planting ceremony at the Summer Garden of the International Conference Center, Yanqi Lake in Beijing. Malacañang Photo Bureau/Ryan Lim

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Yongxing Island (Woody Island)

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A photograph taken in February of the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, a reef occupied by China but also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. According to the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department, this photo appears to show large-scale reclamation being carried out in stages by China. — Photo: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs

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An example of what Vietnam calls  China’s “lawlessness” at sea: A Chinese ship rams and collides with a Vietnamese vessel in contested waters of the South China Sea. Photo: AFP photograb

In May 2014, China moved its largest ocean going oil rig to the waters near Vietnam. The oil drilling rig remained in place for more than a month despite Vietnamese diplomatic moves to protest.

China considers much of the South China Sea its territory based on its nine-dash line map. The map covers an area that extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines. China is creating artificial islands in the Spratly area.

China claims to own all the South China Sea inside the “nine dash line” as seen here.

China claims ownership of about 90% of the South China Sea. Most of China’s neighbors believe otherwise.

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