Construction on the high seas adds to Asian maritime tensions

This handout photo taken on July 17, 2012 and released on July 24, by Philippine military western command (WESTCOM) shows newly-constructed radar dome on Chinese-controlled Subi Reef, around 15 nautical miles northwest of the Philippine-controlled Pag-asa islands on the disputed Spratly islands. The Philippines on July 24, 2012 summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest against China's plans to establish a military garrison on the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Construction on the Chinese-controlled Subi Reef in the Spratly islands

Nation-building has come to Asia’s seas — literally — as China and Japan, already embroiled in territorial disputes over existing islands, raise artificial land masses from the ocean.

The increase in number of these man-made islands is the latest flashpoint in a region where relations have long been fractious and marked by mutual suspicion, and has sparked concern across the region.

Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, has demanded China halt work on transforming reefs into small colonies with piers and, in one case, a helipad and large buildings.

“This action has really risked escalating tension in the area, which is already complicated,” Mr Minh said in an interview in Hanoi. “This is a shared interest for maritime security and safety in this region.”

His remarks highlight the contentious politics around the arc of ocean surrounded by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. Obscure — if aptly named — places such as Dangerous Ground, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef are emerging as crucial sites in regional powers’ battle for territorial supremacy.

Mr Minh called on countries outside Asia to join the US, which has raised concerns privately with Beijing, in pressing “through all possible channels” for China to down tools. But he acknowledged it was unlikely to do so.

“Many countries are making noise about this,” said Seiichiro Takagi, senior associate fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think-tank. “But I would say that China has a very thick skin.”

Beijing’s intensified building work in the Spratly island chain over the past 18 months represents a change in tack by Beijing in the long-running South China Sea disputes.

After backing down from confrontations over territorial claims with Vietnam and Japan last year, Beijing shifted focus to fortifying islets that it already controls, perhaps with a view to reinforcing its military presence and control of the skies in the area, analysts say.

The dredging and construction work sparked a diplomatic protest from the Philippines in early February. Beijing rebuffed the complaint, saying the activity was well “within its sovereign rights”.

While China’s activities are the most striking, other countries have used similar methods. In February, Taiwan officials confirmed that building plans were under way at the Spratly island of Itu Aba, which boasts an airstrip and fresh water supply.

Japan has also engaged in island building as part of an effort to shore up its claim to an exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima, a coral atoll about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo. Japan says it is an island, deserving its own EEZ, while China insists it is merely a rock.

With typhoons constantly threatening to sweep the land away, Japan as long ago as 1987 began constructing concrete embankments and a research station to shore up its claim.

Japan has also been investigating whether it can breed coral to extend the island “naturally”. The move is aimed at complying with UN rules that say the land must be a natural feature in order to make a territorial claim on the surrounding waters.

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Henry Sapiecha

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