Sandbars, Submerged Reefs, and Underwater Canyons: China's New Claims in the South China Sea
By Drake Long
With tensions mounting in the South China Sea, China has named and claimed 80 obscure geographical features in those contested waters as it steps up its aggressive campaign to mark out territory and push out other claimants.
Using satellite imagery and mapping software, Radio Free Asia has examined those claims – announced by China last month – and found that they include rocks, sandbars, and small reefs dotted off the coast of Vietnam and around the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains where, in all, six governments have claims. Most of these 80 features are completely underwater. None of them qualify as islands, despite what China may insist.
With this latest list, China now claims more than 300 land features above and below the water in the South China Sea. Experts warn that the new rash of claims add an irritant to negotiations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a Code of Conduct, at a time when Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines are pushing back on Beijing's stance toward the resource-rich region.
On April 19, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Natural Resources announced that China's Geographical Names Commission had located 80 "islands" as part of its mission to standardize all of China's claims in the South China Sea.
The list of names and coordinates came on the same weekend China announced two new administrative districts to be created under Sansha City, a settlement built atop Woody Island in the Paracel Island chain - Beijing's latest gambit to assert that it alone had the right to administer the entire South China Sea.
Collectively, the two districts encompass more than one million square miles of water and rocks.
The move was given a big thumbs-down by rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines. Experts say there's no basis in international law for China's sweeping assertion of sovereignty over land and waters hundreds of miles from its own mainland. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 ruled China's argument of "historic rights" invalid.
China's excessive maritime claims and aggressive actions in the South China Sea face growing opposition from its Southeast Asian neighbors.
So why is China now adding these new claims, covering even obscure parts of the seafloor? Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says there's a simple explanation: nationalism.
"As China faces criticism to its COVID-19 response, including outcries over continued South China Sea activities and aggression amid the pandemic, Beijing is doubling down on chest-thumping nationalism," Poling said.
"That might work domestically. But internationally, this move in particular just shines more light on the very modern and ad hoc nature of China's supposedly ancient South China Sea claims," he said.
The Land is Not Enough: Claiming Underwater Features
China last updated its list of names for features in the South China Sea in 1983, but a big difference this time is the inclusion of many features on the seabed – 55, to be exact – that include canyons, slopes, and mountain ranges or hills on the ocean floor, known as seamounts.
Under international law, underwater features can only be claimed by a country if within 12 nautical miles of land. Most of the features China claims are not.
Part of the motivation for China making these claims could be for exploitation of undersea resources. China has invested heavily in deep sea research and mapping. The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, a survey vessel, was recently charting the seabed in waters disputed with Malaysia and Vietnam. China has more research vessels for this purpose than any other country, and it recently announced it had broken world records for extracting natural gas from the bottom of the ocean.
So who has the right to exploit undersea resources? Julian Ku, professor at Hofstra School of Law in Hempstead, New York, said that under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), "states don't have 'sovereignty' over the seabed, but they do have exclusive economic rights to their own continental and extended continental shelf." That means a state has exclusive control over exploitation of seabed resources such as oil, natural gas and minerals.
But some of the new features claimed by China, like Wan'an Haidixiaguqun (Wan'an Undersea Canyon Group), are clearly within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam's coast, which puts them on Vietnam's continental shelf. While China asserts that it too has a continental shelf spreading outward from the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands that would extend to this area, it's a legal position that has never been recognized under UNCLOS.
The location of the "Wan'an Undersea Canyon Group" named by China off the coast of Vietnam.
What's more, there is no real precedent for a state naming underwater features in the manner China is doing. Ku cited an International Court of Justice case between Qatar and Bahrain that ultimately ruled naming underwater features carried no legal significance and could not be considered a sign of sovereignty or historic rights to an area.
But then what is China's motive for naming these features now?
Olli Suorsa, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said it could serve a "psychological purpose" at a time of great insecurity in the South China Sea.
"With the administrative structures in place, China seems to impose its domestic laws to govern claimed maritime features and adjacent waters in place of international law, especially UNCLOS," Suorsa said.
Video from 2014 of a Chinese Coast Guard ship ramming a Vietnamese naval vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands.
China continues to pressure Vietnam and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states not to partner with any outside countries or international companies when exploring for resources within their waters.
This is a key position China has brought into its negotiations with ASEAN over a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Long-awaited talks on regulating behavior in the area between claimants formally began in 2017, in hopes of mitigating conflict. However, China's new list of geographical features adds another wrinkle into complex negotiations that have, by many accounts, already begun to flounder.
"China keeps on changing the facts on the ground while insisting on maintaining the status quo. That status quo is changing in Chinese favor every day," Suorsa said. "China's actions in the South China Sea are making any constructive Code of Conduct agreement next to impossible now, if it wasn't already."
Talks on the Code of Conduct have been delayed once this year already due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Above The Water: Claims in The Paracels
Of the 25 above-sea features in China's new list, 12 are in the Paracels, an island chain in the northern part of the South China Sea. The Paracels are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. China seized control of the rocks and reefs comprising the Paracels in 1974, in a naval skirmish with what was then the government of South Vietnam.
Experts emphasize that technically, none of these 12 features are new claims - because China already claimed them on the basis of its "historic rights" and the nine-dash line which roughly demarcates the vast area of the South China Sea it says it has sovereignty over. But what it's doing now is effectively mapping the area for itself in more detail.
China claims the Paracels are an "offshore archipelago," and in 1996 drew baselines around them, which are connections between their outermost points that are normally used by island states to group their islands together for the sake of establishing borders across an expanse of ocean. By doing so, China hoped to legally extend its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf over the entire northern half of the South China Sea. This was ruled invalid in the 2016 arbitral ruling between China and the Philippines.
"Sanzhizai," China's lone new feature in the northeast Paracels between Middle and South Island. North Island hosts a Chinese outpost.
One of the new features, Sanzhizai, is a sandbar that satellite imagery shows to be uninhabited and barely above water at all hours. It is wedged between Middle Island and South Island, which are also unoccupied and claimed by China. China occupies all the inhabited features nearby, including North Island, which houses a small military outpost, and Tree Island, home to a larger port and military base.
The other 11 features China names in the Paracels are among the Crescent Group of features, a small cluster of reefs and rocks, some of which China has dredged and built into military outposts roughly 45 nautical miles from the major Chinese base at Woody Island.
No islands named by China in the Paracels qualify, legally, as islands. Two are submerged at all hours. Others are shallow reefs or sandbars. Kuangzai Beidao – or Basket North Island – for instance, is a scrap of land less than a tenth of a mile from end to end. It is adjacent to a tiny Chinese-occupied island called Antelope Reef, which has a handful of buildings on it.
Under the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea, to meet the definition of an island, a feature has to be able to "naturally sustain" human settlement and economic activity without outside help. Kuangzai Beidao clearly could not qualify - and nor could the other features on this list.
Kuangzai Beidao, or "Basket North Island," as of April 23, 2020. This scrap of land is on Antelope Reef, just north of a key Chinese settlement in the Paracels.
Other new features are clearly meant to plug the gaps between and around China's military outposts and artificial islands. Guangjin Beiyidao and Guangjin Bei'erdao (Guangjin North First Island and Guangjin North Second Island) are indistinguishable from each other, and China lists the same coordinates for both of them, but together with Guangjin Xidao (Guangjin West Island) they make up the small sand barrier on the western side of Duncan Island, which houses a Chinese-built harbor and outpost.
A satellite image of Duncan Island from April 28, 2020. Guangjin Beiyidao, Bei'erdao, and Guangjin Xidao are to its west. Guangjin Beiyidao and Bei'erdao share the same coordinates according to China's list, but based on their names can be assumed to refer to the two sandy banks right next to each other in the upper left. Duncan Island hosts a harbor for Chinese fishermen and coast guard.
These features seem to be part of China's ongoing campaign to define clearer baselines around the Paracel Islands, which would allow China to more easily group all features into an offshore island chain. China already demands passing ships request permission before moving through the Paracel Islands. This is a prime reason the U.S. continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels, calling China's baselines around the Paracel Islands unlawful.
Above The Water: Claims in The Spratlys
The other 13 above-sea features China names are in the Spratlys, a chain of rocks and islands where Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei also have claims. It lies in the southern half of the South China Sea.
The Spratlys includes Vanguard Bank, where China and Vietnam engaged in a tense standoff involving multiple coastguard and paramilitary fishing boats in the second half of 2019, and Fiery Cross Reef, a major military base frequented by the Chinese navy, coastguard, and air force.
The new features in the Spratlys are truly tiny, but after plotting the coordinates, it's easy to see why China is staking a claim to them. They are scattered around West Reef - where rival Vietnam built up an outpost for its own military between 2013 and 2016, and added two lookouts nearby during that same period.
The entire reef itself is barely worth a name, but China has seen fit to label every bit of it - as part of the Xijiao (West Reef) and Longbi (Dragon's Nose) chain of "islands." For reasons that are unclear, some of the miniscule features are even labeled twice with different names. For example, Xijiao Dongdao (West Reef East Island) is also known as Longbi Dongdao (Dragon's Nose East Island), and Xijao Xidao (West Reef West Island) is also known as Longbi Xidao (Dragon's Nose West Island).
"It seems like this was some government cartographer's fancy that got pulled out of a filing cabinet to pad the new list of names, which Beijing presumably pushed out to signal its displeasure over Southeast Asian, and particularly Vietnamese, criticism over recent South China Sea tensions," said Poling.
One of the Vietnamese outposts on West Reef that China says was illegally invaded and occupied. China now calls this outpost 'Longbi Xidao' or 'Xijiao Xidao.'
China and Vietnam have been at loggerheads in recent months, over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship on April 3 and in a series of submissions disputing each other's claims to the South China Sea, sent to the United Nations. The last note China sent was more targeted in tone, calling on Vietnam to "withdraw all the crews and facilities from the islands and reefs it has invaded and illegally occupied."
Malaysia and the Philippines submitted protests against China's new claims, too, in a rare show of unity - right before China announced its new administrative districts and published its new list of 80 features.
Chinese PLA Marines walk across Woody Island, China's largest military base and city in the Paracel Islands.
Vietnamese sailor watches over the sea from a Vietnamese outpost in the Spratly Islands.
Web page produced by: Minh-Ha Le
Graphic illustrations: Rebel Pepper
Map annotations: Drake Long, Vince Meadows
Editing: H. Leo Kim, Mat Pennington
Photographs: Reuters, YouTube
Satellite images: Google Earth, Planet Labs Inc.
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