China denies building on reefs it doesn't occupy in South China Sea, says it's 'fake news'


Yen Zhi Yi | December 22, 2022, 12:28 PM

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China is building on several unoccupied land features in the highly-contested South China Sea, said western officials who spoke to Bloomberg.

Image via Maxar Technologies

The unnamed officials made this claim based on satellite images of what they said were first known instances of a country doing so on territory it does not already occupy.

China rejects claims

China has dismissed the report, according to CNN Philippines, with the Chinese embassy in Manila claiming that it is “fake news”. 

A Twitter post by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) sang the same tune, describing the report by Bloomberg as “100% fake news”.

In response to queries on whether China was indeed conducting land reclamation activities on uninhabited territory in the South China Sea,  a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mao Ning, denied these claims at a Dec. 21 press conference, saying the report was creating a fuss out of nothing at all.

She further said that through the Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, China and Asean have come to a shared understanding on not taking any action of inhabiting on uninhabited islands and other features in the South China Sea.

She also reiterated that China has good relations with the Philippines, and that both countries would continue to cooperate on maritime issues.

Highly contested

China has claim disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei in the resource-rich South China Sea. There are some overlapping claims in some cases.

Approximately US$3.4 trillion worth (S$4.7 trillion) of international shipping trade is estimated to pass through the geo-strategic sea annually.

China has laid claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea via its “nine-dash line".

Unprecedented move?

In the report, the officials told Bloomberg that this was an unprecedented move, and demonstrates China’s "long-running effort" to exert control over a disputed territorial space and strengthen its claims over it.

China has previously built military installations, ports and airstrips in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. It has also militarised Woody Island with the deployment of fighter jets, cruise missiles and implementing a radar system.

The officials also said that the land features supposedly built by China have emerged above water at Eldad Reef in the northern Spratlys over the past year. Satellite imagery had apparently captured excavator tracks, debris piles and large holes at an area that was previously submerged.

Screenshots of Eldad Reef via Google Maps

A photo reportedly taken by the armed forces of the Philippines in 2014 also apparently shows a Chinese maritime vessel dropping off an amphibious hydraulic excavator conducting that's used in land reclaimation, according to the officials. 

Image via Armed Forces of the Philippines

Nevertheless, the officials said there is no indication yet as to whether China plans to militarise the newly acquired territory.

Concerns over new claims

Bloomberg reported that the Philippine foreign ministry had expressed serious concern over the report, as the activities “contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea's undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award”.

The ministry has also tasked other agencies in investigating the new territorial claims, CNN Philippines reported.

The report on China’s new territorial claims comes a week after Chinese vessels apparently swarmed Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal, which are located inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), according to the Manila Times.

U.S. and China in the picture

Earlier on Dec. 19, a U.S. State Department spokesperson has also expressed support for the Philippines in an official statement, calling for China to “respect the international law of the sea” in the South China Sea.

The Chinese embassy in the Philippines subsequently responded in a statement, accusing the U.S. of "[driving] a wedge" between the China and the Philippines.

Investigations on the Bloomberg report are ongoing.

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Top image via Maxar Technologies & Armed Forces of the Philippines