Maritime rescue center opened on South China Sea islet as Beijing seeks to reinforce claims


China opened a maritime rescue center on one of its man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, state-run media reported, as Beijing seeks to reinforce its claims in the strategic waterway.

China’s Ministry of Transport opened the rescue center on Fiery Cross Reef, which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, “to better protect navigation and transport safety in the South China Sea,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

It quoted the ministry as saying the center “will offer better support to maritime rescue operations in the southern part of the South China Sea” near the Spratly chain.

Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

As part of what some experts say is a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea, three of Beijing’s man-made islets in the Spratlys — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs — all boast military-grade airfields. Recent reports have also said the islets, including Fiery Cross, have emplacements for missiles, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activity and communications.

In a bid to offset concerns over the militarization of these islets, China has consistently said the facilities there are for defensive purposes and that the islands themselves are civilian and will provide navigational services to ships in the vicinity. But some observers have expressed concern that the moves could help boost Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the islets.

These moves have seen China build ecological conservation and restoration facilities and marine observation centers on Fiery Cross, Subi and Meiji Reefs. Xinhua has said that the facilities were “providing public services, including marine forecasts and disaster alarms, to the international society and passing vessels.”

In late July, China announced that it would permanently station a search-and-rescue ship at Subi Reef, the largest of China’s seven man-made outposts in the Spratlys and home to a lighthouse and extensive docking facilities. In October, another rescue ship was sent to the region to replace the vessel.