China’s Lighthouses in the Spratlys

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In May 2015, China began construction of lighthouses on two of the features it occupies in the Spratlys, Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef. The lighthouses, employing cylindrical and cone-cylindrical designs, respectively, are 50-meter-high towers constructed of reinforced concrete that officially began operation on October 9. Each tower has been designed to cast its white light out to a distance of 22 nautical miles on an eight-second cycle and has a 4.5-meter lantern on its uppermost level. During a press conference the day after formal operation commenced, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying stated that China would continue to construct other civilian and public facilities on relevant features in the Spratlys so as to better serve coastal nations in the South China Sea and passing vessels from around the world. Official statements clearly indicate the primary aim of erecting these lighthouses is to further navigational safety, but then why is it that China is constructing approximately 3,000-meter-long runways on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs while choosing to instead erect lighthouses on Cuarteron and Johnson South Reefs?

The Significance of Lighthouses in UNCLOS

A review of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions for using straight baselines to determine the limits of the territorial sea shows that when selecting base points, in accordance with Article 7, Paragraph 4, “Straight baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or except in instances where the drawing of baselines to and from such elevations has received general international recognition.” In establishing baselines for archipelagic states, Article 47, Paragraph 4 stipulates, “Such baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or where a low-tide elevation is situated wholly or partly at a distance not exceeding the breadth of the territorial sea from the nearest island.”

In other words, for countries in general and archipelagic states in particular, it is only through construction of a lighthouse above sea level that can allow low-tide elevations, on which these structures are erected, to be considered as starting or ending points of a baseline. Therefore, there is no need for China to rely on the construction of lighthouses on Cuarteron and Johnson South to establish its baseline. As such, China’s construction in the Spratlys cannot simply be a matter of delimiting its territorial sea. 

Read more: http://thediplomat.com/2015/10/chinas-lighthouses-in-the-spratlys/

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