MANILA - China has continued to reclaim areas in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. think tank said Thursday, contrary to claims of Beijing and Manila's top foreign affairs officials.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies's (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has published new satellite photos dated August 5, 2017 on China's expansion in the Paracel Islands, which are being claimed by Beijing, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
"China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands. The two most recent examples of this are at Tree Island and North Island in the Amphitrite Group. AMTI previously reported on work at these features, which has continued in recent months," the think-tank said.
AMTI reported in February 2017 that China completed a new helipad and installed renewable energy infrastructure in the form of wind turbines and two photovoltaic solar arrays on Tree Island.
Tree Island in August 2015. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Tree Island in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Tree Island in August 2017. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
It said China's artificial land bridge connecting North Island with neighboring Middle Island was washed out by Typhoon Sarika in October 2016.
"Since then, China has undertaken additional reclamation on the southern end of North island and built a retaining wall around the seven acres of new land to prevent further erosion. It has constructed several new facilities, including what appears to be a large administrative building in a newly-made clearing on the island," AMTI said.
North Island and Middle Island in December 2012. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
North Island and Middle Island in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
North Island and Middle Island in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
North Island and Middle Island in August 2017. Photo courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The think tank cited the recent 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila, wherein a joint communique was issued August 6 after a long debate.
"The document almost didn’t happen because of disagreement over references to the South China Sea disputes, with Vietnam leading the push for stronger language despite objections from Cambodia and the host, the Philippines. In the end, consensus was reached on language that was considerably stronger than an earlier draft written by Manila," it said.
AMTI said the late joint communique noted “concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence…” and “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation.”
Although the final joint communique decried militarization in the South China Sea, it neither mentioned Manila's arbitration win nor called for a legally binding code of conduct in the disputed waters.
CAYETANO BACKS CHINA'S CLAIM
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi criticized the joint communique and denied that Beijing was continuing reclamation work in the disputed sea.
"At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China – perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it,” Yi said.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano supported China’s claim after the summit was over.
Cayetano said he wanted to remove the mention of land reclamation and militarization in the foreign ministers' joint communique.
"I did not want land reclamation and militarization. It's not reflective of what's happening anymore. They are not reclaiming land anymore so why will you put it here?" Cayetano said in a press briefing after the conclusion of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.
"Whether land reclamation was there or not, the reality on the ground is that people have stopped reclaiming. The reality is it was not only China who was reclaiming," he added.
AMTI said it has also documented Vietnam's reclamation work in the area, but Beijing's work on artificial islands in the Spratlys and Paracels is more extensive and expansive.
It said both Beijing and Hanoi have undertaken dredging and reclamation work as recently as early 2017, but “neither approaches the scale of what China did from late 2013 to mid-2015, but any such work is environmentally destructive, undermines regional stability, and warrants mention in diplomatic statements.”
"All the Southeast Asian claimants also have an interest in deterring future island-building," AMTI said.
Neither China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs have yet to respond to AMTI's latest satellite images and analysis, as of Thursday night.
The United States has criticized China's construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. - with a report from Reuters