Chinese authorities, as well as sympathetic writers, have in recent months sought to deflect criticism of China’s island-building campaign in the Spratlys by insisting that Beijing is merely copying what other claimants have done for years. According to this narrative, every claimant is as guilty as Beijing of altering the status of features in the South China Sea in contravention of international law and escalating tensions. But this narrative is false. Unfortunately, in one recent case, poorly chosen messaging from Washington has only strengthened it.
China’s argument against the Philippines is the easiest to dismiss. No evidence has been offered to show that Manila has engaged in large-scale dredging or reclamation work, other than the expansion of a narrow strip of sand off Thitu Island years ago to allow for the construction of a runway. The Philippines has engaged in some reclamation to prevent erosion at features, just as all claimants have (and just as occurs at coastal and island beaches around the world). Most importantly, Manila has never attempted to create a rock or island from a low-tide elevation, as China has at three of the seven features it occupies. That is by far the most legally troubling, and most provocative of China’s actions.
Malaysia also engaged in reclamation work at Swallow Reef, on which it built an airstrip, luxury scuba diving resort, and small naval base in the 1980s. The natural rock or island was expanded from approximately 25 acres to 85 acres. That is admittedly substantial, but a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of acres built by China in the last two years. And, as with Thitu Island, it is important to recognize that Malaysia construction did not seek to alter either the geographic or legal status of Swallow Reef.