China’s lighthouses in Spratlys beckon recognition from passing ships


The next time the United States sends warships by China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, officers aboard will have to decide how, if at all, they will engage with a pair of giant lighthouses that Beijing lit up there this month.

Chinese officials say the lighthouses on Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the disputed Spratly islands will help maritime search and rescue, navigational security and disaster relief.

Experts, diplomats and foreign naval officers say, however, the lighthouses represent a shrewd move to help buttress China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

While the U.S. and other navies mostly rely on electronic instruments to confirm their ships’ positions, visual fixes from lighthouses are still used in certain conditions.

Any such moves would play into a strategy “geared to bolstering China’s claims by forcing other countries to effectively recognise Chinese sovereignty by their actions,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.

“If naval and other ships from other countries, including the U.S. would be obliged to use and log them, it could be taken as de facto recognition of China’s sovereignty,” Storey said.

U.S. officials have not confirmed or denied reports that the U.S. Navy will soon conduct freedom-of-navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands. Asked about those reports on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the United States would sail or fly wherever international law allows.

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