China's Land Reclamation Efforts in the South China Sea

by Kit Dawnay

Satellite photographs of China’s land reclamation activities on remote atolls in the South China Sea are the latest trigger for a rise in tensions

The speed and scale of the reclamation work for runways and deep water ports prompted Albert Del Rosario, Foreign Minister of the Philippines, to warn on 26 April that China could take “de facto control” of the sea.  He is not alone in voicing his fears; US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris Junior on 31 March criticised Beijing’s “great wall of sand”.1

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) also issued a statement on 28 April criticising China’s actions.2 For its part, Beijing has described the work as “reasonable” and “legitimate”.3

This concern is real.  China has long had the most sophisticated facilities on its islands, and its building of runways and deep water ports will only facilitate its assertions of sovereignty.4   Its stance, though, not only risks damaging relations with its neighbours, but also those with the US, as Chinese control of the Sea would represent a real challenge to the US-led regional security order.



The claims in the South China Sea are complex, but divide roughly in two; first, China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the Paracel Islands in the Sea’s north, about 200 km south west of China’s Hainan province; and second, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei Darussalam claim features in the Spratly Islands chain in the Sea’s south.5   Some other reefs and shoals are also disputed.  The issue lay somnolent for years, until the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 raised the stakes of ownership; the growth in states’ abilities to enforce their claims has added to tensions, too. 

The Sea is worth disputing for four main reasons.  First, reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the sea bed; the US Energy Information Administration estimates some 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 tcf of gas, although hopes for a ‘new Persian Gulf’ may prove exaggerated.6   Second, the South China Sea is a key fishery; fish accounts for about 22% of protein in the average diet in Asia.7   Third, territorial sovereignty is a crucial source of legitimacy for governments, especially those in China and Vietnam.8   Finally, crucial sea lanes cross the South China Sea.  The area thus has strategic importance, particularly for China, which fears the US could close the Malacca Straits in the event of a crisis.9   


China's claims

By far the most assertive party is China, which claims over 80% of the Sea.  Beijing is in a strong position; it controls all of the Paracel Islands, and occupies Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Nansha (南沙).  It administers these atolls as part of Hainan Province.

China bases its claims on historical usage, pointing to naval expeditions in 110 AD and during the Ming Dynasty, and a map drawn up in 1947 showing a ‘nine dash line’.10   China defends its claims strongly, opposes discussing them in multilateral fora,11 and stresses economic links as a means to reduce tensions.12   Beijing reportedly branded the South China Sea a ‘core interest’ in March 2010, thereby setting it, at least in rhetorical terms, alongside other non-negotiable issues such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.13   However, China has since played down these claims.14  

Since about 2010 China has acted aggressively to defend its claims.  Notable incidents include the cutting of sonar arrays from Vietnamese vessels in 2011 and a standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012.  Tensions peaked in 2012 amidst concern about a lack of coherent strategy amongst Chinese government agencies, although worries eased after the formation of a single national coast guard in March 2013 until China National Offshore Oil Company deployed an exploratory rig to the disputed area in 2014.15  Chinese vessels continue to challenge those from other claimants, though, such as those of Philippine fishermen at Scarborough Shoal in April 2015.16


The other disputants

Most littoral states dispute China’s claims.  Vietnam lost control of the Paracel Islands to China in 1974, but still controls 21 features in the west of the Spratly chain.17   Its claims rest on a combination of historical evidence and the continental shelf principle.  The Philippines controls features in the eastern Spratly chain, in addition to Scarborough Shoal, based on the activities of Tomas Cloma, an explorer in the 1950s, and the principle of proximity.18   Malaysia controls features close to Borneo based on the continental shelf principle.  Taiwan controls the biggest island in the Spratly chain, Itu Abu or Taiping Island, on the same basis as China.  Other disputants include Brunei, which controls no islets, and Indonesia, part of whose exclusive economic zone (near the Natuna Islands) is within the ‘nine dash line’. 

Efforts to resolve the dispute thus far have taken place in talks between China and ASEAN – since 2002 on a binding Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea.  The two sides agreed Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on a Code of Conduct in July 2011, but a Code of Conduct remains out of reach.19   One major impediment is division within ASEAN, on which China plays by using proxies such as Cambodia to back its interests.20  


Risks to regional security

Failing resolution, all parties are strengthening their navies.  China’s military capabilities have grown most rapidly; the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) three fleets include some 205 warships, including five nuclear submarines, 59 diesel submarines, 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 86 missile armed patrol craft, 20 corvettes and 56 amphibious landing vessels.21  The South Sea Fleet alone is well able to cope with a conflict with an ASEAN state. 

Vietnam is perhaps next strongest.  Hanoi spends about 3% of GDP on its Soviet-influenced military.  It has recently bought 6 Kilo-class Russian made submarines, two Russian-made Gepard-class light frigates, perhaps 10 Molnyia-class missile corvettes, two Netherlands-made Sigma-class corvettes, and some Su-30MK2 fighter aircraft.22   India has also offered to sell its BrahMos missile, which would increase area denial capabilities, and the US has lifted a ban on arms exports to Vietnam for maritime equipment.23   

The other major disputant, the Philippines, has very limited capacity; its air force cannot field a single fighter, and the navy consists of two ageing former US Coast Guard vessels, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and the BRP Ramon Alcaraz.24   Still, Manila is seeking to upgrade capacity, by buying anti- submarine warfare helicopters and 50 FA-50 fighters from South Korea; Japan is also providing 12 patrol vessels on soft financing.25   Vietnam and the Philippines are also preparing a strategic partnership aimed in part at China,26 and Manila in 2014 strengthened links with Washington by signing an agreement that gives the US military access to bases.27  

However, the only regional power truly able to confront China is the US, thanks to its Seventh Fleet based in Japan and Guam.  Washington has previously maintained a ‘neutral’ stance towards the territorial disputes, even while criticising China.  The US has two main interests in the South China Sea – access and regional stability.  In terms of access, Washington contends that all states should enjoy freedom of navigation on the high seas outside of the 12 mile territorial waters limit (in accordance with UNCLOS);28  indeed, then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced in mid-2010 that freedom of navigation in the Sea was a US national interest.29   In terms of regional stability, the US does not want to see resources diverted away from economic development to military confrontation, so damaging the region’s prosperity or risking war.30   An ancillary concern is that the dispute could harm relations between China and the US,31 particularly in light of US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter’s recent signalling that American patrol vessels could be deployed to the area.32   In this regard, it is notable that many Chinese observers see the US presence in the South China Sea as part of a broader effort to contain China.33  

Other key states with concerns include Australia, India, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, which rely on trade through the South China Sea or have military commitments to the US.  The most important is Japan, which is sceptical of China’s rising clout and has cooperated with ASEAN states on maritime security.34   A more active role for Tokyo may now be emerging; changes in April 2015 to US-Japan Guidelines may permit the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to provide aid to US forces in the South China Sea.35   Moreover, American officials have called on Japan to patrol the Sea.36 Needless to say, China will view any such move askance. 


Commercial costs

The costs of rising tensions could prove significant.  Trade between China and ASEAN had a value of USD350 billion in 2013, even if it was one sided (ASEAN ran a USD45 billion deficit in goods with China in 2013).37   Most importantly, the Sea is a key shipping route; some 50% of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, destined for China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – heavily industrialised countries that lack energy resources.38   Any spike in tensions, or outbreak of conflict, could disrupt trade or shipping, or add to insurance costs, and so affect the regional and global economies. 



All told, the scope for conflict in the South China Sea is rising.  China’s steps to reclaim land have spooked ASEAN.  New ports and runways will extend the range of Chinese aircraft and ships, meaning Beijing may soon be able to assert sovereignty across the whole sea.  Any such development would not only harm the interests of neighbouring states, but could represent a very real challenge to the US-led security system in East Asia.  As such, Beijing’s stance risks not only poisoning relations with its neighbours, but also harming relations with the US.  The dispute over China’s dredging in the South China Sea thus has implications well beyond the immediate neighbourhood. 


Citation: Kit Dawnay, “China’s Land Reclamation Efforts in the South China Sea,” Current Intelligence Vol. 6 (13 May 2015).


Explanation of dates

Drafted: 2015-04-29

Information cut-off: 2015-05-12

Published online: 2015-05-15


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