Subi reef, located in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is shown in this handout Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative satellite image taken August 8, 2012, and released to Reuters October 27, 2015. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea on October 27, 2015, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it had tracked and warned the ship and called in the U.S. ambassador to protest. REUTERS/CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Subi reef, located in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is shown in this handout Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative satellite image taken August 8, 2012, and release October 27, 2015. REUTERS/CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
(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.