China is aggressively laying claim to most of the South China Sea. What’s at stake? Here’s everything you need to know:
What is China claiming?
China has issued an audacious map claiming as its territory practically the entire South China Sea and all its islands. The delineated area reaches hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland, nearly all the way to the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Under maritime law, each country claims the sea 12 nautical miles out from its coastline as its own territory, and it can also claim an economic zone 200 miles out, within which it can control fishing and mining rights. China is leaving its neighbors only their 12 miles and claiming the rest. It says, for example, that it owns the Spratly Islands. That archipelago is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam — and unlike China, those countries have each established their claim with an airport and a small military outpost in the otherwise uninhabited islands. To remedy that, China is building its own islands in the Spratlys. It says these artificial islands are for “peaceful civilian purposes,” but there are indications it intends to establish military bases on them.
How is it making islands?
China has built and deployed gigantic dredgers the size of skyscrapers that can move more than 4,000 cubic meters of sand and rock every hour. The vessels are dredging out deepwater harbors suitable for large ships and dumping massive amounts of sand onto reefs to build islands big enough for military bases. More than 2,000 acres of new land have been formed, mostly in the past six months. China “is not wasting any time trying to get these islands created, infrastructure built, and populated,” said James Hardy of Jane’s Defence Weekly. One of the seven new islands is almost two miles long and sports a nearly completed airstrip suitable for fighter jets.
Is this legal?
That’s a complicated issue. Maritime law does not recognize manmade islands as territory giving a nation sovereignty over waters or airspace. China does have some historic claim to parts of the sea, but then so do many other countries. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all used or occupied some of the shoals and islands at various periods in history, and all have submitted legal claims at the United Nations. Yet China refuses to submit to U.N. arbitration. Instead, it is moving ahead, taking existing islands or building new ones, with military hardware expected to come next. “The fear is that China will turn the sea into a Chinese lake,” says Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy of the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.