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UPDATE: China’s Continuing Reclamation in the Paracels

Officials at the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila belatedly released a joint communique on August 6 after a protracted debate. The document almost didn’t happen because of disagreement over references to the South China Sea disputes, with Vietnam leading the push for stronger language despite objections from Cambodia and the host, the Philippines. In the end, consensus was reached on language that was considerably stronger than an earlier draft written by Manila. Among other changes, it noted “concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence…” and “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation.”

China objected to the strengthened statement and accused Vietnam of being the only country reclaiming land in the South China Sea. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi insisted, “At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China – perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it.” More surprising was Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s decision to back China’s position after the summit was over. Referring to the mention of land reclamation and militarization in the statement, Cayetano said “I didn’t want to include it. It’s not reflective of the present position. They (China) are not reclaiming land anymore.”

But this is false.

AMTI has carefully documented Vietnam’s expansion of its facilities in the Spratlys, including dredging and reclamation work at several islets (see herehere, and here). But China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands. The two most recent examples of this are at Tree Island and North Island in the Amphitrite Group. AMTI previously reported on work at these features , which has continued in recent months.

In August 2015, two months after Wang Yi claims all Chinese reclamation ended, there was only a small amount of newly-created land on the western end of Tree Island. China has since dredged a new harbor and added about 25 acres of additional land to the island. In addition to the facilities that AMTI reported in February, China has recently completed a new helipad and installed renewable energy infrastructure in the form of wind turbines and two photovoltaic solar arrays on Tree Island.

China began reclamation to connect North Island with neighboring Middle Island in 2016, but the land bridge was washed out by Typhoon Sarika last October. Since then, China has undertaken additional reclamation on the southern end of North island and built a retaining wall around the seven acres of new land to prevent further erosion. It has constructed several new facilities, including what appears to be a large administrative building in a newly-made clearing on the island. China has left a gap in the retaining wall facing the remnants of the washed-out land bridge, suggesting it might not have abandoned plans to connect North and Middle Islands.

The South China Sea doesn’t only include the Spratly Islands, and for Vietnam, developments on the disputed Paracels are just as destabilizing. Vietnam and all the Southeast Asian claimants also have an interest in deterring future island-building, for instance at Scarborough Shoal. Both Beijing and Hanoi have undertaken dredging and reclamation work as recently as early 2017. Neither approaches the scale of what China did from late 2013 to mid-2015, but any such work is environmentally destructive, undermines regional stability, and warrants mention in diplomatic statements.

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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