Without causing much of a stir, China has been quietly dumping sand onto reefs and rocks in waters claimed by Vietnam.
In addition to altering the geography of the Spratly (Truong Sa) archipelago, China’s land reclamation work on Johnson South, Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, and Kennan reefs could be used as a clever legal leverage in an international court battle, particularly if Vietnam doesn’t pay attention.
And there’s still time to make a difference.
Based on Robert Beckman (1) and Clive Schofield (2)’s analysis of satellite imagery and studies conducted by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and the United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, these reefs don’t yet qualify as islands.
Reefs, rocks, islands and low-tide elevations
An island is defined in Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a naturally formed area of land above water at high tide.
Islands are entitled to the same maritime zones as land territory, including a 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea, a 200nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and a continental shelf which could extend beyond 200nm.
While Cuarteron Reef has been definitively classified as “a rock,” it remains unclear whether the four remaining reefs qualify as “rocks” or “low-tide elevations” — which stick out at low-tide and disappear at high tide.