[HONG KONG] The pace at which China is building islands in the South China Sea has been shown by satellite photos lending weight to claims by US Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris that China is building a "great wall of sand."
The photos, published by an initiative of the Washington- based Center for Strategic and International Studies, focus on China's reclamation in the Spratly Islands on Mischief Reef, a feature also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Artificial islands could help China anchor its territorial claims and potentially develop bases in waters that host some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Disputes over the South China Sea, of which China claims about four-fifths under a so- called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map, have escalated as China expands the reach of its military.
Satellite photographs show construction on Mischief Reef that appears to have begun in recent months, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Speaking on Thursday at a forum in Kingston, Jamaica, US President Barack Obama said "where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions." "And that's the concern we have around maritime issues," Mr Obama said. "We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside."
"China is creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers," Admiral Harris said in a speech in Canberra late last month. "China is building artificial land by pumping sand onto live coral reefs -- some of them submerged -- and paving over them with concrete." The construction work is China's sovereign right, the country's foreign ministry said Thursday in a statement on its website, citing spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
"It does not impact or target any country, and is thus beyond reproach," Hua said. "The relevant construction, which is reasonable, justified and lawful, is well within China's sovereignty."
An Office of Naval Intelligence report on the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy released on Thursday said that China has never published the coordinates of its nine-dash line, or declared what rights it purports to enjoy in the area.
"Despite repeated calls to clarify its claims in the nine- dash line, China has yet to offer a clear, legal rationale of this expansive claim," it said.
More than a decade of sustained investment in its navy and coast guard, which resulted in the launch of more vessels than any other country in 2013-2014, has given China's leadership additional tools to pressure or deter rival claimants, the ONI report said.
Philippine fishermen first reported that China was building structures on Mischief Reef in 1995, when the reef was completely submerged at high tide, according to AMTI. The structures were upgraded to a single, permanent multistory building in 1998.
By 2013, the original structures had been transformed into a "forward naval station," permitting the basing of one People's Liberation Army Navy frigate at a time, according to the website. Philippine fisherman last year began to report patrols by the Chinese navy and coast guard.
A photograph taken in January shows a dredger widening the entrance to the reef, the website said. While images taken "just a few months prior" didn't indicate dredging or construction, photos taken since show sand removed from one of the reef's entrances being used to create a land formation.
Photos on March 16 show new structures, fortified seawalls and dredgers, in a sign that construction is progressing.
"China's land reclamation and construction activities are fueling greater anxiety within the region about China's intentions amid concerns that they might militarize outposts on disputed land features in the South China Sea," US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Thursday in a briefing. "We continue to raise our concerns with China."
In August last year, China rebuffed efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to secure a freeze on any actions in the South China Sea that might provoke tensions. All claimants to the Spratlys except Brunei occupy islands or have built structures on reefs and shoals, according to IHS Jane's.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March that his country won't accept criticism from others for the reclamation work.
"China is carrying out necessary construction on its own islands, and that isn't directed against and won't affect anyone," Mr Wang said. "We are not comparable to some countries that like to build illegal houses on others' territory."