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Artificial Island Building in the South China Sea

China’s artificial island building: Johnson South Reef

Johnson South Reef (9°42’N., 114°17’E.) is located at the SW end of Union Atoll. China started occupying the reef since March 14, 1988 after forcing Vietnam out in a skirmish in which 64 unarmed Vietnamese army engineers were killed (1).

Based on Robert Beckman and Clive Schofield’ analysis of satellite imagery and previous studies, it can be interpreted that the nature form of Johnson South Reef is not an island defined by UNCLOS. It is also unclear whether it can be classified as rock or submerged feature. The maximum maritime zone that can be claimed from Johnson South Reef thus is 12 nm territorial sea.

Until early 2014 the only man-made feature at the reef was a small concrete platform equipped with VHF/UHF communications facility, search radars, naval guns and anti-aircraft guns, and pier (2), (3).

The reef, however, is now turned into a  30-hectare (74-acre) artificial island through a large-scale land reclamation by China, according to satellite imagery analyses by Philippine navy and IHS Jane’s. (3), (4)

The land reclamation has mainly been carried out by the 127-metre dredger Tian Jing Hao. It has a cutter with the power of 4,200 kW to the seabed to a depth of 30 m, sucks up the seabed and deposits the spoil either through pipeline ashore for land reclamation or into hopper barges for dumping offshore. The extraction rate is 4,500 m3 per hour, making it ideal for large-scale land reclamation, says IHS Jane’s (5).

It has been showed by AISLive tracking that the dredger has been moving between reefs since December 17, 2013. Satellite imagery reportedly confirms the dregger was operating at Johnson South Reef in February and March 2014 (5).

Below are photos showing the development of the reef since 1988.

Johnson South Reef in 1988. Bullets fired at Vietnamese Navy’s unarmed engineers from China’s 37mm machine guns in the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish. The photo is a screenshot from a video released by China.

Johnson South Reef on March 14, 1988. Bullets fired at Vietnamese Navy’s unarmed engineers from China’s 37mm machine guns in the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish. The photo is a screenshot from a video released by China (6).

Johnson South Reef in 1990s

Johnson South Reef in 1990s (7)

Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows land reclamation ongoing at Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea. Images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 15 May 2014 (left) show the progress of construction on the reef from 13 March 2012 to 11 March 2014. (CNES 2014, Distribution Astrium Services/Spot Image S.A./IHS)

Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows land reclamation ongoing at Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea. Images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 15 May 2014 (left) show the progress of construction on the reef from 13 March 2012 to 11 March 2014. (CNES 2014, Distribution Astrium Services/Spot Image S.A./IHS) (3)

Satellite imagery dated 14 August 2014 shows ongoing construction and development of the new island on Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. (PLEIADES © CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image S.A. / IHS)

Satellite imagery dated 14 August 2014 shows ongoing construction and development of the new island on Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. (PLEIADES © CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image S.A. / IHS) (3)

According to Article 60(8) of UNCLOS: “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.” (8)

References

(1) Lt. Colonel Zumwalt. The Massacre “Not Heard Around the World”. US Daily Review 2014

(2) China builds more Spratly outposts. The Philippine Star May 24, 2011: http://www.philstar.com/headlines/688856/china-builds-more-spratly-outposts

(3) China advances with Johnson South Reef construction. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly 19 September 2014: http://www.janes.com/article/43456/china-advances-with-johnson-south-reef-construction

(4) In Photos: China’s reclamation on Mabini Reef. The Philippine Star May 15, 2014: http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/05/15/1323405/photos-chinas-reclamation-mabini-reef

(5) China goes all out with major island building project in Spratlys.  IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly 20 June 2014: http://www.janes.com/article/39716/china-goes-all-out-with-major-island-building-project-in-spratlys

(6) Video: China vs. Vietnam: Johnson South Reef Skirmish of 1988 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq30CY9nWE8

(7) Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journey. South Sea Conversation Blog June 14, 202: http://southseaconversations.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/adventure-regret-anger-one-global-times-reporters-epic-south-china-sea-journey/

(8) UNCLOS, article 60(8): http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part5.htm

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