By David Tweed
(Bloomberg) — Lighthouses have for centuries guided the world’s seafarers, preventing ships from striking rocks and reefs and helping fishermen find their way home. In the disputed South China Sea, they may be taking on a darker role.
China’s program to build beacons on reclaimed reefs it occupies in the waters — through which about 30 percent of global trade passes — is spooking other claimant countries concerned it will use them as political tools. Having lighthouses perched on top of the reefs, ostensibly to help navigation in the waters, could boost China’s argument for sovereignty.
The country is expediting construction, having built two lighthouses in the Paracel islands and two in the Spratly archipelago as of October. They are part of an array of civilian facilities that China says will serve the public good by providing bases for search and rescue operations and meteorological information.
There’s potentially another motivation: So that China can promote the idea that the reefs it occupies have enough infrastructure — and height — to be regarded as islands, albeit artificial ones. It has indicated this entitles it to a 12-nautical mile territorial zone in the surrounding waters, something recently challenged by a U.S. warship that came within that range of one reef.
“Building facilities on any features for which the sovereignty is disputed, and you are building a case toward administrative control, which can make quite a difference in international legal proceedings,” said Alexander Sullivan, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “Doing things like building lighthouses as opposed to runways or barracks allows them to make the argument they are providing public goods.”
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map lodged informally with the United Nations in 2009. The map covers around 2 million square kilometers of maritime space equal to about 22 percent of China’s land area, according to a U.S. State Department estimate. It also overlaps claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In the past year China has alarmed some neighbors with a dredging program that has dumped millions of tonnes of sand and coral onto seven features in the Spratlys, creating at least 2,900 acres of land — more than three times the size of New York’s Central Park– on the features, some of which were previously submerged at high tide. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea these are known as “low-tide elevations” that don’t warrant a 12-mile territorial zone.
The U.S. last month sailed the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, an artificial island created by Chinese engineers on a low-tide elevation. China’s foreign ministry protested the patrol, saying it passed in waters “near” its territory and “threatened” its sovereignty.
Two B-52 bombers flew “a routine mission” this week near the Spratly islands, according to Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban. The planes, which didn’t pass through the territorial zones around the reclaimed reefs, received verbal warnings from Chinese ground controllers and continued their operation in accordance with international law, he said.
“China is aware of the situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing. China “resolutely opposes any country, in the name of freedom of navigation and flight, violating international law and undermining China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
China earlier this year mounted a diplomatic campaign contending that the construction blitz, while partly for military purposes, was mainly to improve the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, as well as better performing its “international responsibilities” by building civilian facilities that neighbors could use.
A recent decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that it has jurisdiction to hear Philippine complaints about China’s claims in the South China Sea may have implications for China’s approach.
Sullivan said the tribunal may determine that the most expansive version of China’s nine-dash line assertion is illegitimate, raising the possibility it withdraws the map and resubmits separate claims for maritime features and the entitlements that go with them. That’s a big if, though, given how much President Xi Jinping has embedded the nine-dash line into China’s psyche of a resurgent regional power.
When China announced in October that it had completed two lighthouses on two Spratly features — Cuarteron Reef and Johnson Reef — it sparked an angry response from the Philippines. “These actions are obviously intended to change the actual conditions on the ground and aimed at bolstering China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea,” foreign affairs department spokesman Charles Jose said. “We will not accept these unilateral actions as a fait accompli.”
China’s construction work was an “unwarranted provocation,” Malaysia’s Armed Forces chief Zulkefli Mohd Zin said at a security conference in Beijing last month.
“China has pledged to make these facilities available to all ships, and so this very much plays into that idea that they are just proving a public service to the international maritime community,” said James Kraska, research director at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College. “The lighthouses, along with all of the other infrastructure they are putting on these features, at least in China’s mind, will buttress their claims.”
Vietnam is also sensitive to China’s construction program in the Paracel islands, occupied by China since 1974. Two lighthouses were completed in the islands, known as Xisha in Chinese, official news agency Xinhua reported Oct. 22.
Vietnam Foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said the building on the Paracels infringes Vietnam’s sovereignty, “increases tension, and seriously threatens regional peace and stability.”
“China is using the lighthouses to support their claim that the Paracels belong to China,” said Ha Hoang Hop, visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “That is the problem.”
–With assistance from John Boudreau, Diep Ngoc Pham, Andreo Calonzo, Tony Capaccio and Janet Ong.
©2015 Bloomberg News