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Blowback: China’s artificial islands

First of 2 parts

THE highly respected retired UP professor Clarita Carlos in her Facebook account expressed outrage over the transformation from 2013 to 2015 of the seven reefs in the Spratlys that China has occupied since 1988, into artificial islands, complete with facilities.

The comments are surprising though for the gross ignorance over this development, which really is of epic impact in the geopolitics of the South China Sea.

In the hope of shedding light on this issue, I am posting here, in two parts because of its length, Chapter 9 of my book, Debacle The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration, which discusses this development in detail, with the appropriate citation of sources of data and statements. The book is being printed now, to be distributed in the first week of January.

Cover and back page of author’s book.

Debacle book starts:

The very first sentence of a propaganda book apparently commissioned by Antonio Carpio, who it claimed was the brains behind the arbitration, raved: “On July 12, 2016, the Philippines won its historic maritime case against China, a date that will be engraved forever in the annals of public international law.” President Aquino 3rd was also ecstatic over the award, calling it a “game changer” that would put the “long-running dispute closer to having a permanent solution.”

A game-changer the arbitration certainly was, but it will be engraved forever in the annals of modern history as one of the biggest ever blunders in international disputes.

Aquino, Carpio, Albert del Rosario and their US backers thought the suit would remove the Chinese out of the seven reefs in the Spratly Islands that they have occupied since 1988, and away from the Reed Bank so that the oligarchic trio could extract the allegedly huge gas deposits in the area.

Instead, when the dust of the arbitration brouhaha settled in 2016, China emerged as having the most developed and biggest features in the SCS — built on land reclaimed from the sea — complete with fortifications, ports, communications equipment and airstrips in the Spratlys. The arbitration provoked China to undertake its biggest construction project ever in the South China Sea, with the artificial islands and its vast facilities built dwarfing the features occupied by the rest of the four claimants combined.

Carpio has been fond of calling the arbitration suit against China as “lawfare.” He was ignorant of the fact that the term has belligerent connotations, after then US Air Force Col. (and later Gen.) Charles Dunlap who popularized it in national security circles, described it as “a method of warfare where law is used as a means of realizing a military objective.” The “lawfare” blew up in the faces of its plotters.

Artificial island built on Gaven Reef in just four months by the Chinese in 2014. FROM GOOGLE EARTH PRO

Since the arbitration lawfare was disguised warfare by the US (using the Philippines as its pawn, in the eyes of the Chinese), China responded to it as any country would when it is under siege. It built up its fortifications on its territories.


The arbitration gave China the justification for its biggest push since 1988 in the disputed areas, which radically transformed the balance of power in the Spratly Islands — in favor of China. The Chinese should be thanking Aquino, Carpio and del Rosario — as well as the US Obama administration which orchestrated it.

China exploited the Philippine legal action against it as its excuse to transform the reefs which were barely out of the water into islands, resulting in the situation in which the reclaimed land area of its reefs is now seven times larger than those of the other four claimants combined.

The Chinese facility at Mischief Reef, from 1995, consisted only of three octagonal structures with an area one-fourth of a hectare. By 2017 it had been transformed to become a 570-hectare complex of multi-story buildings covering 69 hectares, a runway, and communication/radar arrays. It is strategically located 100 kilometers away from the Sampaguita Field in the Reed Bank, obviously an outpost guarding for China the area thought to be oil-rich.

Before the arbitration case was filed in January 2013, China’s seven reefs had practically zero land, with only small facilities built on the reef supported by stilts. After China’s massive reclamation work that started a few months after the suit was filed, in September 2013, the land built on these reefs had an area of 1,300 hectares, seven times bigger than the 187-hectare area of islands and reefs of both Vietnam and the Philippines.

US helpless

Starting in its 2016 annual report, the US Department of Defense reported yearly to its Congress on China’s massive buildup of its artificial islands, helpless to stop it.

After transforming its reefs into artificial islands complete with buildings, berths, runways, communication and radar facilities, China, as the American general heading the Indo-Pacific Command in a US congressional testimony said, “is now capable of controlling the SCS in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

The US in its plot to use the Aquino government for its “lawfare” instead gave China the justification both internally and externally to build up its presence in the Spratlys, which before consisted only of small structures on its seven reefs.

It was after the Philippines began arbitral proceedings on January 2013 that China drew plans for turning their reefs into islands. It contracted German engineering firms to advise them on such unprecedented reclamation, including the design and manufacture of dredging ships that are the biggest in the world today. In September 2013, China moved the ships to their reefs to begin the reclamation work.

Zhang Jie, an expert on regional security with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China had long been researching island reclamation. “Institutes and companies had drafted various designs over the past decade,” said Zhang, adding that she had attended the deliberation of one proposal years ago. “But building an artificial island… would cause very severe negative impacts,” she explained. “We had the ability to build artificial islands years ago, but we had refrained because we didn’t want to cause too much controversy.”

The Chinese government contracted its state-owned company, its biggest infrastructure firm, China Communications Construction Corp., to undertake the dredging, which deployed several state-of-the-art cutter suction dredgers such as the Tia Jing Hao, Asia’s largest dredger, which can excavate 4,500 cubic meters of sand per hour.

$150 billion

The enormity of China’s artificial-island construction has been much underestimated. The dredgers reportedly spent 193 days working on five reefs that China controls in 2013 and 2014, reclaiming 1,300 hectares. China’s island-building blitz could have cost $150 billion, more than its $131 billion military budget for 2014 and three times the entire Philippine government budget in 2014. Thus it represented a major rechanneling of China’s funds, reflecting the huge importance it put on its island-building program in the SCS.

“By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen the merits of its claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Would China have built their man-man islands even without the arbitration suit? Maybe, but without the suit, it would have been difficult for China to justify such a move that totally changed the features of the Spratly archipelago.

More importantly, the arbitral suit gave the Chinese the justification to ignore the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that China and nine Southeast Asian nations signed in 2002. A clause there bound the signatories to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities” that would escalate tensions. But China claimed that it was the Philippines that had violated the declaration when it unilaterally filed the suit against China to kick it out of the Spratlys. Therefore, it was no longer bound by the declaration.

The US defense establishment and the US Congress were undoubtedly aghast at China’s phenomenal buildup at breakneck speed of its once tiny reefs in the Spratlys.

The US and its allies couldn’t do anything about China’s island-building, the biggest transformation of the SCS geopolitical situation since the Philippines and Vietnam grabbed in the 1970s the 18 main features in the Spratlys.

Sovereign territory

China had been claiming the entire Spratly archipelago as part of its sovereign territory, even before World War 2 although it moved there to occupy seven reefs only in 1988, and another (the unoccupied Mischief Reef) in 1995. We had been claiming the Spratlys as part of our sovereign Kalayaan Island Group that Marcos created in 1978. However, the Aquino 3rd regime’s arbitration suit strangely — and stupidly — invoked only its claim that it was within our exclusive economic zone.

US official policy was that it didn’t take sides in this territorial dispute, so it couldn’t even protest China’s moves, except through unofficial tirades by American writers and military men. International public opinion, or even just those of the powerful nations, couldn’t be roused to stop it, as it was clear that China was merely responding to a serious provocation, the arbitration suit that threatened to take away the Spratlys features they held.

The US government’s hands were also tied when China undertook its massive building of artificial islands in 2014 to 2015. “The Chinese have rushed to finish the military installations before the 2016 presidential election in the United States in order to remove them as a potential issue in the campaign,” a New York Times article in 2015 said.

Asked for a reaction by Western media in a press conference in 2014 on the Philippine protest against China’s island-building, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had the right to build in the Spratlys because they are Chinese territory. “China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands.”

China had even gained some kind of high ground because it was merely reacting to the Aquino regime’s arbitration suit against it, which asked the tribunal to drive out China from the reefs as well as from the Reed Bank.

China refused to participate in the arbitration and instead, “established facts on the ground.” While the suit sought to claim that the features China occupied were just “rocks,” the Chinese turned these, with their newfound financial resources and technological competence, into man-made islands through massive reclaiming of land from the sea.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina Rojas

    It was indeed dumbest not to be able to differentiate between sovereign territory and exclusive economic zone and yet we always claim that we are superior in English compared to the Chinese.

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