China Building on Scarborough Shoal? Don’t Hold Your Breath.


For diplomatic and strategic reasons, now is not the time for Beijing to make such a risky move.

For over six months now, speculation has been rampant that China is gearing up to begin land reclamation (or, more accurately, island building) at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed feature in the South China Sea roughly 355 km west of Manila. In March, U.S. Navy chief Admiral John Richardson said the United States had observed “survey type activity” around Scarborough that could be a precursor to reclamation. A month later, South China Morning Post added fuel to the fire by citing an anonymous source “close to the PLA Navy” as saying that China would carry out reclamation work at Scarborough “within this year.”

Speculation grew after an arbitral tribunal ruled heavily in the Philippines’ favor in its suit against Chinese claims and actions in the South China Sea. Some analysts argued that China might penalize Manila for the case (and the ruling) by building on Scarborough – but only after China finished hosting the G20 summit in Hangzhou. And China did send a number of ships to Scarborough during the summit, but contrary to initial rumors they were fishing (and likely maritime militia) vessels, not dredgers.

The summit is over now – so, will China build? Looking at the diplomatic signals from China, and the current situation in the South China Sea, I’d argue it’s not likely, at least in the immediate future.

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First, there’s the diplomatic context. China has consistently held up the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) as the blueprint for handling the disputes. China even formally recommitted itself to the Declaration in a joint statement issued with ASEAN after a foreign ministers meeting in Vientiane, Laos on July 25. The statement reaffirmed “that the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) is a milestone document that embodies the collective commitment of the Parties to promote peace, stability, mutual trust and confidence in the region.” ASEAN and China also (re)committed themselves “to the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety.”

Why does that matter for Scarborough? After all, many critics have accused China of repeatedly violating the DoC through its large-scale island building and construction activities in the South China Sea. At issue is the rather vague pledge that the parties will “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” The catch is that what constitutes a complication or escalation of the disputes is in the eye of the beholder – and for that matter, so is “self-restraint.” China has repeatedly insisted that its construction doesn’t constitute escalation, and that its own actions are simply necessary countermeasures to other claimants’ moves. Beijing’s insistence that the projects are meant to provide public goods for all regional countries may ring hollow outside China, but it does provide Beijing with enough diplomatic cover to say it is not in violation of the DoC. (Ironically, China has no issue with arguing that other claimants’ construction and land reclamation projects do, in fact, violate the DoC.)

There is, however, one action that is explicitly pointed to in the DoC as off-limits: “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.” Signatories have thus specifically undertaken to refrain from establishing a presence on currently uninhabited features as part of their commitment to “exercise self-restraint.” China may bend the rules beyond recognition, but to begin land reclamation and construction at Scarborough Shoal would be as clear cut a violation of the DoC as is possible for that vague, non-binding agreement.

China’s current strategy relies on exploiting the ambiguities in the DoC and in China’s verbal commitments (for instance, Xi’s pledge not to militarize the Spratlys, where militarization apparently does not include the construction of facilities with both military and civilian applications). There is no ambiguity in the pledge not to inhabit previously uninhabited shoals – of which Scarborough is one. For that reason, there is a vast diplomatic difference between reclamation at Scarborough and reclamation on features like Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef, where China had outposts before construction.