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Artificial Island Building in the South China Sea, Militarization and Construction in the South China Sea

China to Draw New Red Line on the Sand?

By Rosa Tran and David Ha

Scaborough Shoal may be the next site of China’s strategic construction project, various sources say.

Scaborough Shoal locates at 15008’00N – 117046’00’’E, which is 119.6 miles from Luzon and 460.3 miles from mainland China. Both Philippines and China consider Scaborough Shoal as a high-tide feature. In Philippine description, it is a coral reef that is submerged except for 6 small rocky protrusions that remain above water at high tide. The largest of the six, South Rock, protrudes only 1.2 m above water with the surface area of about 1 m2. The feature has never been inhabited.

Philippine position is that Scaborough shoal is a rock as defined by Article 121 (3) of UNCLOS. This, under UNCLOS, creates a territorial sea area twice the total land area of Metro Manila. [1]

The sovereignty of Scaborough Shoal is contested by China, Taiwan[2] and the Philippines[3]. (See note 2 and 3 for the government positions and legal analyses by scholars of both side)

China has gained effective control over the shoal since 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippines initiated by an encounter between several Chinese Tanmen fishing boats, Tanmen militia and Philippine navy ship[4].

 In January 2013, the Philippines submitted a Notification and Statement of Claim[5] that “challenges before the Arbitral Tribunal the validity of China’s nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea under the 1982 UNCLOS.” In the 15 claims that the Philippines submitted to the tribunal, there are 5 claims that are related to Scaborough Shoal. In particular, the Philippines requests the tribunal to find that: (1) China’s claims to sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and to “historic rights”, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the so-called “nine-dash line” are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under UNCLOS; (2) Scarborough Shoal generates no entitlement to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf; (3) China has unlawfully prevented Philippine fishermen from pursuing their livelihoods by interfering with traditional fishing activities at Scarborough Shoal; (4) China has violated its obligations under the Convention to protect and preserve the marine environment; and (5) China has breached its obligations under the Convention by operating its law enforcement vessels in a dangerous manner causing serious risk of collision to Philippine vessels navigating in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal.[6]

China refused to participate in the arbitration. At the end of 2013, satellite images revealed that China began building artificial island in the Spratly Islands and expanded land in the Paracel islands. Just within two years, China turned all the submerged reefs or tiny rocks into large artificial islands with buildings, facilities, radar stations…

It is expected that the tribunal will issue its decision in coming weeks[7]. This could be a trigger for Beijing to accelerate its faits accompoli creation project in the attempt to gain control all over the South China Sea. Scaborough shoal forms one of strategic four-point constellation from which, with a radius of only 250 nautical miles, the entire main body of the South China Sea can be kept under intense watch, Alexander L. Vuving wrote in The National Interest[8]. The other three points of the strategic constellation are Woody island, Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, Vuving wrote.

If China finishes land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, it can install radar and other facilities for 24-hour monitoring of the US Basa air force base on Pampanga, 300 km off Scaborough Shoal, Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong told the South China Morning Post.

On March 18, 2016, US military official said they had seen Chinese activity around Scaborough Shoal. Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, told Reuters: “I think we see some surface ship activity and those sorts of things, survey type of activity, going on. That’s an area of concern … a next possible area of reclamation.”[9]

Satellite imagery dated March 24 obtained by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, however, shows no Chinese dredging or construction activity at Scaborough Shoal. The only vessels present were a Chinese civilian ship anchored within the mouth of the lagoon, which has been typical for several years, and two Filippino trimaran-type fishing ships outside the shoal, Gregory Poling and Zack Cooper described.[10]

Still, Australian intelligence concerns that China is poised to take “decisive and provocative action”. These sources report that China may dynamite Scarborough Shoal to build an artificial island to house military facilities or declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), according to Carl Thayer.[11]

U.S. intelligence agencies also obtained specific intelligence indicating China has clear plans to build an island and place military forces on the Scarborough Shoal, according to The Washington Free Beacon report citing US defense officials.[12]

A detailed dredging plan for Scaborough Shoal was also posted on the website Super Camp Military Forum on March 9, according to The Washington Free Beacon report. Chinese authorities have used such website to disclose new military development in the past, the report said. The website included satellite photographs purportedly based on a construction bid proposed by the “Huangyan Island Township,” a municipality created under what China claims is its regional authority on Sansha Island. A graphic with one photo outlined the development plan, with three Chinese guided-missile frigates at a wharf at the southern opening of the shoal, an airport and runway at the northern end, an electrical plan, a water treatment plant, a residential building, a hotel, and a “travel holiday” area. It is not clear whether the post reflects the actual plan of development or only at the conceptual stage, U.S. defense officials said.[13]


The report further elaborated: “The graphic is labeled “invitation to bid” and is based on a press release published online on Dec. 15 by Tianjin Dredging Co., a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company. The press release stated that Tianjin Dredging has commissioned another company, Zhenghua Heavy Industry, to build a dredging vessel. The electric-powered ship will be capable of digging up sand at a depth of up to 115 feet—an indication China plans a harbor deep enough to accommodate larger warships once the shoal is fully developed. The dredging ship will be delivered by July 2017.”

Reclamation plan on the Scaborough Shoal was further confirmed by a South China Morning Post report on April 25, citing an anonymous source close to PLA Navy.

“Beijing will take action to carry out land reclamation at Huangyan Island within this year,” said the source, referring to the shoal.[14]

The report follows an announcement on April 15 by the US Secreatary of Defense that joint patrols between the US and the Philippines have been started[15], and an announcement by U.S. PACAF on April 19 that it conducted a flight mission over “international space within the vicinity of Scaborough Shoal”.[16]

On April 23, Philippine media reported five Chinese coast guard ships had been spotted in Scarborough shoal. Philippine Defense spokesperson Peter Galvez told the Inquirer that five coast guard vessels simultaneously in the area were “more than the usual.”[17]

Thayer predicts “China is likely to erect small permanent structures on Scarborough Shoal and station personnel on them. China would justify its actions under the guise of providing public goods such as weather reports and safety of navigation. By acting quickly China would leave the United States and the Philippines flat footed. This would lay the groundwork for further expansion in the future.”[18]

Works on the shoal would be another major step in cementing China’s strategy of gaining control over the South China Sea, but it would also significantly raise regional tensions and bring China’s military into close contact with U.S. military bases in the Philippines.

Interestingly, Filipino fishermen said in the past several months, they stood their ground and showed no fear as they faced the Chinese near Scaborough Shoal.[19]


[1] Jay L. Batongbacal, “Bajo de Masiniloc (Scaborough Shoal): Less-known facts vs. published fiction”, Lecture delivered for the Cartographic Exhibit Forum at De La Salle University on September 26, 2014.

[2] “Chinese embassy urges Philippines to stop illegal activities in China’s territory,” Xinhua April 11, 2012: news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-04/11/c_131519892.htm

Zou Keyuan, “Scaborough reef: A New Flashpoint in Sino-Philippine Relations?”, IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin Summer 1999

[3] Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, “Philippine position on Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and the waters within its vicinity”, April 18, 2012 http://www.gov.ph/2012/04/18/philippine-position-on-bajo-de-masinloc-and-the-waters-within-its-vicinity/

Antonio T. Carpio, “Historical Facts, Historical Lies, and Historical Rights in the West Philippine Sea”, http://www.imoa.ph/imoawebexhibit/The%20Historical%20Facts%20in%20the%20WPSLOW.pdf

[4] Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scaborough Shoal Incident”, Center for International Maritime Security April 24, 2016: cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[5] The Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Philippines, “Notification and Statement of Claim on West Philippine Sea”, January 2013, https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/2nd-press-release-from-pca-the-arbitral-tribunal-sets-further-proceedings/

[6] PCA cases achieves, http://www.pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/1503

[7] Michael Joe T. Delizo, “PH may know sea verdict in May”, The Manila Times, April 9, 2016: http://www.manilatimes.net/ph-may-know-sea-verdict-in-may/255123/

[8] Alexander L. Vuving, “China’s Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea”, The National Interest, December 8, 2014: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-grand-strategy-challenge-creating-its-own-islands-the-11807

[9] David Brunnstrom and Andrea Shalal, “Exclusive: U.S. sees new Chinese activity around South China Sea shoal”, Reuters, Mar 19, 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-scarborough-exclu-idUSKCN0WK01B

[10] Gregory Poling and Zack Cooper, “Developing a Scarborough contigency plan”, AMTI March 30, 2016 amti.csis.org/developing-scarborough-contingency-plan/

[11] Carl Thayer, “Australian Intelligence: China Poised to Take “Decisive and Provocative” Action in the South China Sea”, The Diplomat, April 15, 2016: thediplomat.com/2016/04/australian-intelligence-china-poised-to-take-decisive-and-provocative-action-in-the-south-china-sea/

[12] Bill Gertz, “China Outlines Plan for Military Buildup on Disputed Island”, The Washington Free Beacon, April 13, 2016: freebeacon.com/national-security/china-plan-for-military-buildup-disputed-island/

[13] Ibid.

[14] Minnie Chan, “China to build up atoll in contested South China Sea, source says”, South China Morning Post April 25, 2016: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1938277/china-build-atoll-contested-south-china-sea-source-says

[15] “Joint patrols begin in the South China Sea”, South China Sea Research, April 18, 2016: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/joint-patrols-begin-in-the-south-china-sea/

[16] “US Air Contingent in Philippines conducts first flight mission to South China Sea”, South China Sea Research, April 22, 2016: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/us-air-contingent-in-philippines-conducts-first-flight-mission-to-south-china-sea/

[17] Gabriel Cardinoza, “5 Chinese coast guard ships spotted in Scarborough shoal”, Inquirer, April 23, 2016, globalnation.inquirer.net/138856/5-chinese-coast-guard-ships-spotted-in-scarborough-shoal

[18] Ibid., see note 11

[19] Allan Macatuno, “Ph fishermen put up fight vs China”, Inquirer, April 24, 2016: newsinfo.inquirer.net/781083/ph-fishermen-put-up-fight-vs-china#ixzz46kdjMyGn


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