Why China's island-building is raising eyebrows

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Story highlights

  • Mira Rapp-Hooper: United States has longstanding interests in South China Sea
  • U.S. officials have expressed concern about China's activities, she says

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Fellow with the Asia Program and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)China has been busy building -- and it is worrying some of its regional neighbors. Since early 2014, China has undertaken widespread land reclamation and construction in the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, at seven known locations. The work has involved converting several formerly submerged reefs into artificial islands, and increasing the size of other features many times over. Now, the country is building military facilities, including large ports and at least one airstrip, on these new outposts.

The work is raising eyebrows.
True, China is by no means the only country to occupy territory in the Spratly Islands. Indeed, it sees itself as playing a game of catchup with other states in the region. After World War II, Taiwan was the first to occupy an island in the Spratlys, and the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia followed suit. China was the last to arrive when it took its first Spratly feature in the late 1980s. And all the other claimant states also have outposts and airstrips in the area, too.
    Mira Rapp-Hooper
    Yet the scale, scope and speed of China's recent building activities has caught the attention not just of Southeast Asian nations, but also the United States. U.S. officials estimate China may have created as much as 2,000 acres of new land over the past year. In contrast, Vietnam has also used land reclamation in the area, but officials estimate it has constructed only about 60 acres of new land over several years, and at fewer locations.
    The rapid, widespread effort has raised concerns among China's neighbors as to what Beijing intends to do with its new outposts.
    Chinese officials have claimed the islands will be used for predominantly civilian purposes, such as search and rescue missions and scientific research, but they have also admitted the islands could have military purposes, too. Indeed, satellite imagery confirms China is placing military equipment in the Spratlys, a move that has left many states in Southeast Asia believing China is violating a 2002 agreement between China and ASEAN, in which all the parties agreed not to upend the status quo in the South China Sea.
    But Washington also has good reason to be worried about these activities.
    The United States has longstanding interests in the South China Sea that include its commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, to international law, and to upholding freedom of navigation, and these activities may challenge all three. The United States also has an alliance with the Philippines, and much of this building is taking place not far from its shores.
    In the past several weeks, U.S. government officials have expressed serious concern about the implications of China's activities, including strong statements by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, while Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on the issue when he met with him privately on a recent trip.
    The real danger in all this is that China has not stated publicly what rights and entitlements it believes it has around these new outposts, a point underscored by CNN footage this week of U.S. Navy P-8 patrols in the Spratlys. The video documents an exchange in which the Chinese Navy warned the U.S. surveillance plane away from the airspace near its artificial islands. Additional video footage shows that the U.S. aircraft responded: "I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities acting outside national airspace. I am with due regard in accordance with international law."
    Under international law, naturally formed islands are entitled to 12 nautical mile territorial seas, to national airspace, and to exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. If islands are truly artificial -- that is, they were built on top of features that were never above water at high tide -- they are entitled to none of these things.
    With this in mind, China's artificial islands do not have the full legal status of naturally formed islands under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, this may not stop Beijing operating as though they do, posing a clear challenge to international law. Such a stance could also result in a disastrous accident if aircraft or vessels clash in the skies or seas around the islands as the United States or other countries attempt to exercise freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. After all, some 30% of the world's commercial shipping and much of the region's oil and gas pass through the South China Sea, meaning an accident could spark armed conflict between states and also have dire consequences for trade and energy supplies.
    China's South China Sea construction therefore poses a formidable challenge for policymakers, and calls for some creative approaches for engagement. How should the U.S. respond?
    For a start, it should continue to augment its efforts to help partners like the Philippines and Vietnam bolster their own coast guard and naval capabilities, and in particular, provide equipment and training that may improve their ability to monitor the area around the Spratlys. In addition, Washington should continue to support a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and encourage ASEAN efforts to draft one even if that does not involve China.
    Meanwhile, there are also upcoming opportunities -- the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogues and Xi Jinping's state visit in September -- for high-level U.S. officials to communicate to their Chinese counterparts that militarizing these islands will be seen as a deeply dangerous and destabilizing step.
    The Pentagon's decision to release the P-8 video should be hailed as an important move toward transparency that can help inform other states in the region and the broader public about what is at stake in the Spratly Islands. This, in turn, may help to encourage a unified, multilateral approach to engaging China on this issue, and the administration should therefore consider additional releases along these lines.
    Ultimately, the United States, South East Asian nations, and China itself all have ample incentive to ensure that these recent tensions are defused. Choppy seas -- and skies -- are in no one's interests.