'Great Wall Of Sand': China Builds Islands In Contested Waters
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's called Mischief Reef of all things, and China is hard at work there building islands, dredging sand and piling it on top of partly submerged coral reefs. The idea is to stake an even bigger claim to hotly contested territory in the South China Sea. It's an area also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
Yesterday, President Obama expressed concern about China, in his words, using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions. The scale of China's construction in the Spratly Islands is clear in new satellite images released this week. They're on the website of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative where Mira Rapp-Hooper is the director, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.
MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: Thanks so much for having me.
BLOCK: The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has said China is creating a great wall of sand. And I'm looking at one of the satellite images on your website now, which is remarkably detailed. I'm seeing seawalls, a whole bunch of vessels and what seems to be a great wall of sand. Describe what this is.
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, what you're looking at right now, Melissa, is China's latest effort, apparently, to transform formerly submerged land features in the Spratly Islands into small island outposts. We've been aware of the fact that it was doing this kind of work in other locations recently, but the photos that we released this week are the first definitive proof that they're undertaking these massive land-reclamation efforts at Mischief Reef.
BLOCK: Are there also actual structures that they're starting to build on these islands?
RAPP-HOOPER: Yes. Several islands show that there are very well-developed structures that have already been laid down on Mischief Reef. But on some of the other small island outposts where China's building, we can see that there are structures that are several stories high that have gone up in just the last few months.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the implications here. There was a statement from a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry who said that these islands would be used for civilian purposes. She mentioned shelter from typhoons, fisheries. And she did allude to, also, though, a military defense position, which would be, obviously, the big concern here, right?
RAPP-HOOPER: Absolutely. And I think this has been our concern for the last few months - the fact that these tiny island outposts could certainly have military implications for the Spratly Islands and for the region more broadly. And the fact that the Foreign Ministry blatantly acknowledged that in this recent statement, I think, is pretty telling.
BLOCK: When you first started looking at the satellite images from the South China Sea, were you surprised by the extent of what you saw?
RAPP-HOOPER: So what's really stunning in these images, every time you see a new set of images come out, is just the speed and scale at which this work is occurring. It's worth noting that several other claimants in the Spratly Islands have undertaken land reclamation and construction activities in the area before, but the thing that is so startling about China's work is the fact that this time last year, none of it was occurring. And now we can identify the fact that it's taking place at seven different features in the Spratlys.
BLOCK: Well, is what China's doing here - dredging up islands in the South China Sea - is this legal?
RAPP-HOOPER: Well, that's a very interesting and difficult question. It's actually an easier one to answer when it comes to Mischief Reef. Mischief Reef lies within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. It's a maritime demarcation within 200 nautical miles of the Philippines' coastline. Because China is doing this work inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, this is almost definitively a violation of international law.
But at some of the other sites in which China is undertaking this work, it's more difficult to say. Land reclamation is not strictly itself illegal, but there is not a direct provision, for example, in the U.N. Convention On The Law Of The Sea that is a blanket prohibition on land reclamation.
BLOCK: Mira Rapp-Hooper, thanks so much for talking with us.
RAPP-HOOPER: Pleasure to be here.
BLOCK: That's Mira Rapp-Hooper. She directs the Asia Maritime and Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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