By its policy of creating artificial reefs in the South China Sea, to what extent is China revolutionising concepts of maritime power? Fiery cross reef is an island controlled byChina, approximately 680 acres in size1,with over 200 Chinese troops, an airbase with a 3125 m runway as well as anearly warning radar site. This military capability of the Chinese does notsound particularly unusual, it does however when it is understood that fierycross island did not exist until 2014. This is same with six other islands locatedin the South China Sea, they are now military bases but only a couple of yearsago they merely existed as underwater reefs. In this essay I will look at whetherChina is revolutionising maritime concepts through its policy of creating theseartificial reefs. I will argue that although no state before has used thismethod to assert a claim in an area outside their EEZ that currently onlyexists as water, uses of land reclamation, international water disputes andother territorial claims are not new concepts. China is adapting previous conceptsbut not revolutionising maritime power.
China is disruptingand changing the world order due to its “expansionistambitions and increasingly assertive foreign policy stance”2 that has been previously dictatedby US hegemony. One particular area of contestation lies within the South ChinaSea. Tension is rising in the region and disputes are breaking out between Chinaand other neighbouring states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia,Brunei and Taiwan. The most disputed debate is currently concentrated over theSpratly islands. All the states mentioned are claiming some sort of ownershiphowever China are taking a far more aggressive stance and occupying many of theislands with military bases, or creating new ones all together. The regionis economically important as it is abundant with natural resources an estimated11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion feet^3 of natural gas, 10% of the world’sfish stocks3, as well as 30% of theworlds shipping routes pass through the sea which is why it is so contestedover.
However, the South China Sea’s supplies and resources are not the only disputedclaim. It also has great strategic significance. Most of the countries claimingto have ownership over parts of the Spratly islands and other parts of theSouth China Sea are basing their claims off The United Nations Convention onthe Law of the Sea which states that countries’ territorial waters extend to200 nautical miles off their shore, this is an area known as the ExclusiveEconomic Zone (EEZ). It is therefore within a country’s rights to haveexclusive access to all the resources in the EEZ as the article states that “Inthe exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has: (a) sovereign rights forthe purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the naturalresources” 4.
The water that does notfall into any state’s EEZ is known as international waters and comes under UNmaritime law, allowing all states to access it. However, China are notrecognising the EEZ that was calculated by the UN in 1973 and are operatingunder their own called the nine dash line. Due tothis, China are using land reclamation so that their territorial claims (thenine dash line) can be strengthened and to literally solidify these claims sothat they are uncontested by the other states. Reclamation is usually used toimprove or protect areas that may be affected by rising sea levels, the Netherlands,geographically a flat and low lying country, has used this method. It isrevolutionary however that China are using land reclamation to strengthen aclaim, rather than just expand territory. China aregoing against Corbett’s thinking that the sea cannot be conquered, but bybuilding new land in the sea they show that it can be susceptible to ownership.To Corbett, command of the sea is not an absolute and he categorised them intoeither being “general or local, temporary orpermanent.
“5However, China seem to be revolutionising this idea as they are transformingthe theatre in which command of the sea is usually conducted in, which couldallow them to have an absolute power and control over it. However, Chinesepolicy to build these reefs allowing them more control of the region andtherefore control over passage is more in line with Corbett’s thinking. To Corbett,passage of the sea is far more important than to operate more offensively, thisis in contrast to Mahan’s thinking who emphasised importance on the physical destructionof the enemy. China is developing on Corbett’s work, possibly proving thatcommand at sea may be absolute by changing the character of the arena itself yetstill maintaining the importance of controlling the passage at sea which iswhat the artificial islands would allow China to do within the South China Sea.
To this extent, China are somewhat revolutionary in adapting previous maritimewritings but mostly because they are the first country to use land reclamationoutside of their EEZ to expand territory and control. In manyways, China can be seen to be revolutionising concepts of maritime power.Creating land then building military bases is transforming internationalrelations and territorial claims. However, many other countries have alreadyused land reclamation to expand their own territory although not outside theirEEZs. States such as Singapore, constricted by its coastal areas means that theurbanised areas cannot develop onto land but new ground must be constructed onthe waters6.
Since1965, Singapore have increased its land mass by 22% to keep up with its growingpopulation7. Singaporefaced resistance from another state due to the land reclamation. Neighbouringcountry Malaysia has expressed its dissatisfaction as it stated that projectsin the Straits of Jahore challenged Malaysia’s dominion as well as it could affectlivelihoods of the fishermen. Singapore were legally challenged under UNCLOSalthough was settled after arbitration8.
In many ways, China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is similar towhat we have already seen being done in Singapore, being challenged by otherstates while creating new land for their country. Due to this, China is notventuring into new (conceptual) territory and therefore is not revolutionisingmaritime concepts when looking at land reclamation to expand a country’s ownterritory. GeoffreySloan interpreted Mackinder’s Heartland theory to put it into a modern context.He first established the relationship between geography and internationalrelations. China are interpreting the geography of the South China Sea as a “theatreof military action.” 9This has allowed China to disregard any environmental damage they may becausing by creating the new military bases, destroying coral reefs, as floraand fauna are not taken into consideration, the approach becomes “abstract,simplified and schematised” 10.It is explicitly stated by UNCLOS that low tide elevations (ground that issubmerged by the high tide) cannot be built up to “rocks” which would allow theground to then be built upon11.
China are disregarding this completely and continuing with creating these artificialreefs so that they can build military bases on them. Yet China continues with its policy ofcreating these artificial reefs. Geoffrey Sloan also states how geography canbe interpreted as “an objective of policy, a prize in a conflict between two ormore states”12.This would also be a way China are interpreting how they are conductingoperations in the South China Sea. However, rather than by just defending itsexisting borders, its seeks to gain new ones as the territory they seek to gainis part of what Sloan would call a “prize”13.In this sense, China is not revolutionising concepts of maritime power but canbe seen to be staying closely in line with traditional perceptions ofinternational relations. They seek new territory and our staking a claim in itlike most countries have done throughout history. They see the South China Sea as a militaryarena that which needs to be taken control over to put their country in a morepromising position as well as to gain resources from.
Other countries have claimed sea as their ownterritory, so that concept is not a revolutionary one. An example is the Gulf Sirte or Gulf of Sidra. It is located off the northerncoast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. The Gulf was bought to theinternational stage’s attention when in 1973, Colonel Gaddafi decided he wantedto make it an exclusive fishing zone and claimed it to be within the internalwaters of Libya. He claimed it to be not just a mere coastal area but territorialwaters. This was established by drawing a line of 32 degrees, creating abay-like feature, the line was known as the Line of Death.
14 Gaddafi also declared that by crossing thisline would provoke a military reaction. The rest of the world took notice tothis act and the US became involved. Using the United Nations Convention on theLaw of the Sea, the US stated that it was entitled to conduct naval operations inthe Gulf of Sirte as they worked off the standard that international watersstarted 12 nautical miles from a country’s shores (territorial limit)15. Libya did take military actionto defend its claim to these waters in 1973, but this took place in the airrather than on the water. The actions of Libya show a similar claim to watersas China is doing in the South China Sea.
Both claims are not recognised by UNCLOSyet the states still carry out military action to defend the land and watersthat is ‘entitled’ to them. Through this more simplifiedoutlook, we could assess that China’s actions in the South China Sea are just aform of territorial claim, and therefore don’t have a revolutionising effect onconcepts of maritime power. China’s maritime claims are ambiguous as mostof it based on historical evidence, most of which has been proven to be invalid16,especially when the nine dash line is considered. Yet China still pursue the Spratleyislands and control in the South China Sea with determination and militaryforce. China are using land reclamation to stake a claim in the waters and pushall other countries away who believe they are entitled to some of theterritory. Although the world has not seen building of these artificial reefson this scale before, land reclamation to expand a state’s territory is not anew feat and has been seen all over the globe. Disputes about international watersbeing claimed by a state has also been seen before in the Gulf of Sirte as wellas ongoing negotiations in the over the High North.
To this extent, it can beargued that in fact China is not revolutionising concepts of maritime power butmerely adapting it. 1 “Fiery Cross Reef Tracker”, Asia MaritimeTransparency Initiative, last accessed 2018, https://amti.csis.
org/fiery-cross-reef/ 2 Jihyun Kim, “TerritorialDisputes in the South China Sea, Implications for Security in Asia and Beyond”,Strategic Studies Quarterly, Summer2015, p 107, last accessed 2018https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b396/2ed3add347356eebe2b5106d002f82b84397.pdf 3 Shu-yuan, Lin, and Jamie Wang. “U.S.Report Details Rich Resources In South China Sea”.
Web.Archive.Org,2013, last accessed 2018 https://web.archive.org/web/20130213111846/http://focustaiwan.tw/ShowNews/WebNews_Detail.
aspx?ID=201302090013=aIPL. 4 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating tothe implementation of Part XI of the convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic,1982 http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/closindx.htm5 Corbett, Julian, “War Plans: Some principles of navalwarfare, part 1”, National archives, UK, p.
103-1056 Glaser, Haberzettl and Walsh, “LandReclamation in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau”, GeoJournal Vol. 24, No.4 (August 1991), p.365-3737 Banyan,”Such Quantities of Sand, Asia’s Mania for “reclaiming” land from the SeaSpawns Mounting Problems”, The Economist, 26th February 2015, lastaccessed 2018 https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21645221-asias-mania-reclaiming-land-sea-spawns-mounting-problems-such-quantities-sand 8Banyan, “SuchQuantities of Sand, Asia’s Mania for “reclaiming” land from the Sea SpawnsMounting Problems”9GeoffreySloan, “Sir Halford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, 1999, The Journal of Strategic Studies,22:2-3, 15-38, DOI: 10.
1080/01402399908437752 p 1710 Geoffrey Sloan, “SirHalford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now” p 1711 United Nations Conventionon the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI ofthe convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic, 1982 http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/closindx.htm12 Geoffrey Sloan, “SirHalford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, p1613 Geoffrey Sloan, “SirHalford J. Mackinder: The Heartland theory then and now”, p1614 “Libya Maritime Claims” Indexmundi.Com, 2017, Last accessed 2018, https://www.
indexmundi.com/libya/maritime_claims.html 15 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – Agreement relating tothe implementation of Part XI of the convention, Part V the Exclusive Economic,1982 http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/closindx.htm 16 Dupuy, Florian; Dupuy,Pierre-Marie, “A Legal Analysis of China’s Historic Rights Claim in the SouthChina Sea”, 2013,(PDF). The American Journal of InternationalLaw, American Societyof International Law, 107 (1): 124–141. JSTOR 10.