China’s Land Reclamation Announcement: A Change in Message, Not in Policy
June 16, 2015
Q1: What has China announced about its land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands?
A1: On June 16, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang announced that “as planned, the land reclamation project of China’s construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands will be completed in the upcoming days.” He noted that after land reclamation was complete, China would continue to construct facilities on its islands.
Kang indicated that China’s position on its island building remained largely consistent. He reiterated that “the construction activities on the Nansha islands and reefs fall within the scope of China’s sovereignty, and are lawful, reasonable, and justified.” Kang also restated that the artificial islands have defense purposes, as well as civilian purposes, including search and rescue, scientific research, ecological conservation, and fishing. Kang declined to offer specific details on which islands were close to complete.
Q2: Does this represent a resolution of the land reclamation issue?
A2: Today’s announcement does not break new ground with respect to China’s activities or overall position, but it likely reflects subtle diplomatic messaging as senior figures from both the United States and China prepare for high-level meetings. Beijing has already finished its land reclamation activities at some locations in the Spratly Islands, including Johnson South and Fiery Cross Reefs. At other locations, it is putting minor finishing touches on its reclamation work. At two features, Mischief and Subi Reefs, land reclamation is still very much under way. If China were to halt reclamation activity at Mischief and Subi, this would constitute a major change in policy, but this recent announcement appears only to confirm what analysts already knew: Beijing has almost finished its planned land reclamation activities in the Spratlys.
More than anything else, Beijing’s announcement is a shift in its public diplomatic position. Since April, Chinese statements have insisted that other countries have no business interfering with or opining on China’s building activities. Amidst mounting international opprobrium, China’s June 16 announcement is probably intended to mollify the concerns of the United States and of other countries in the region and dial down the rhetorical temperature in the South China Sea.
Q3: Why now?
A3: The United States and China will hold their seventh annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) on June 22–24 in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will be joined by their Chinese counterparts, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang, to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. The strategic track of the dialogue will include a subdialogue on maritime security, and the head of China’s State Oceanic Administration will be in attendance. Today’s announcement may help to clear the way for more meaningful discussions in this channel.
Additionally, President Xi Jinping of China will visit Washington in September. The United States and China do not need to break major new diplomatic ground for these visits to be considered successful, but it is best for President Xi if they are not at loggerheads in international headlines when these summits take place.
China may also feel that a tactical release of pressure is timely ahead of Philippine elections and the upcoming Communist Party Congress in Vietnam, both of which take place in 2016. President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines has not used political capital to get a ruling on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States from the Philippines Supreme Court, and Beijing may be reverting to a pattern of slowing down for near-term tactical convenience. By pressing hard during the political cycles in the two countries, and fellow South China Sea disputants, who have been the most vocally opposed to China’s reclamation push, Beijing may believe it can avoid providing political advantage to hard-line, anti-China nationalists, who may use China’s aggressive posture in their campaigns for leadership roles.
Q4: Does this announcement change the military dimension of this problem?
A4: It does not. As Kang’s announcement acknowledged, Beijing will continue to construct facilities on the artificial islands after they are complete. The capabilities that China installs on these islands and how it employs them will determine whether Beijing’s outposts serve peaceful or coercive ends. China has nearly finished construction of a 10,000-foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef, which would allow it to land any aircraft it chooses. It is also installing radar and communications equipment and building large port facilities in the Spratlys. Recent reports indicated that it had placed mobile artillery on one of its islands. Senior U.S. officials have consistently opposed further militarization by all claimants on land features occupied in the South China Sea, especially the deployment of offensive capabilities. They will presumably continue to do so after China’s land reclamation is complete.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mira Rapp-Hooper is director of the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies. Bonnie S. Glaser is senior adviser for Asia with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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