Dredgers deposit sand on the northern rim of the Mischief Reef, located 216 km (135 miles) west of the Philippine island of Palawan, in this Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative satellite image taken on February 1, 2015 . Handout photo via Reuters
HONG KONG - China's plans for islands it is creating in the South China Sea show for the first time the scale of civilian architecture it will extend across the disputed waterway, entrenching its reach in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, experts say.
China's Foreign Ministry gave rare detail on Thursday, saying reclamation and building work in the Spratly archipelago would allow for scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection and fisheries services.
Navigational aids, shelters and search and rescue facilities were also being built, it said.
While the ministry did not specify who would protect the facilities, experts said the job would routinely fall to the coastguard, which is already leading efforts to enforce China's claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea, rather than its navy.
The islands and reefs in the Spratlys, the main flashpoint in the South China Sea, would also meet the demands for China's military defence, the ministry said without elaborating.
"They are trying to put a civilian sheen on this but I think people will see through this and see (the reclamations) for what they really are," said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.
Once complete, the facilities would help China project not just military power but also boost its oil exploration and fishing in the region, he said.
"This will be of concern to all the littoral states in the South China Sea, whether they are claimants or not," said Storey, calling it the biggest change to the region's status quo in decades.
China claims most of the potentially energy rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Chinese coastguard ships are frequently spotted by rival fleets deep in the South China Sea.
The Chinese ships routinely attempt to restrict access to the Scarborough and Second Thomas shoals claimed by the Philippines, said Asian and Western naval officials monitoring the situation.
China last year unified and expanded its various civilian enforcement ships under the coastguard, a fleet that U.S. naval analysts believe is the world's biggest.
While the ships do not have the weaponry of military vessels, thus reducing the risk a confrontation could get out of control, they still represent a potent show of sovereignty. Western naval officials say the Chinese navy is more discreet but patrols have also increased in recent years.
A study in the April edition of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine said China was using the "law enforcement cutter as an instrument of foreign policy".
The U.S. State Department said on Thursday the reclamation was fuelling anxiety amid concern China might militarize the maritime outposts. President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying Washington was concerned China was using its "sheer size and muscle" to push around smaller nations in the South China Sea.
Bonnie Glaser, a strategic analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said U.S. officials were keen to find new tactics to pressure China short of full-blown military conflict.
"They need to find new ways of stopping the Chinese from using these reclaimed land features to coerce and intimidate its neighbours," Glaser said.
China's Foreign Ministry said the facilities and services on the islands would benefit China, neighbouring countries and ships that could be at risk because of typhoons. The work was "beyond reproach", it said.
Zhu Feng, executive director at Nanjing University's China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, said the facilities would serve civilian and military uses but "that shouldn't be cause for overconcern".
"The U.S.'s anxiety has directly given rise to anxiety from southeast Asian countries," Zhu said.
AIRSTRIPS, CRUISE SHIPS
The reclamation programme includes the creation of two apparent airstrips at Fiery Cross and Johnson South Reef as well as ports, breakwaters and storage facilities.
While the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have airstrips on their larger holdings across the Spratlys, China until now had made do with radar bases and limited housing built above more limited rocks and reefs.
The reclamations will give China the most extensive land holdings, experts said.
It follows moves further north by China over the past two years to expand civilian facilities on the Paracel island group, which have been fully occupied by China since 1974 but are claimed by Vietnam.
Woody Island in the Paracels boasts an extended two-kilometre airfield while Chinese travel agents are offering five-day cruises to the islands.
Some experts believe the speed of the Spratly reclamations shows China is trying to strengthen its legal claim to the area after the Philippines filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, challenging China's claim. China has refused to take part in the case, which has yet to be heard.
The Philippines is attempting to show that something considered a rock outcrop under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea had no rights to a territorial sea or an exclusive economic zone, unlike a proper island.
"By undertaking the reclamation projects, China has essentially destroyed the evidence," said Storey. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Dean Yates and Robert Birsel)