Friday, January 7, 2011

Recent Infrastructure Developments in the South China Sea: Towards Effective Occupation?

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

(This piece is culled from the author's forthcoming book, Renewed Security Tensions in the South China Sea:  Maritime Security Dilemma in the Philippines and the Asia Pacific). 
The South China Sea is composed of two major island-chains: the Paracels and the Spratlys.  The Paracels are being contested between China, Taiwan and Vietnam while the Spratlys are being claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. This paper focuses only on the disputed islands, islets, reefs, shoals and cays in the Spratlys. 
Based on the ten-day field research of the author  in the Spratlys on 6-15 May 2009,all claimants involved in the disputes, with the exemption of Brunei,  are strengthening their effective occupation of what they consider their territories in the Spratlys.  China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have been seriously consolidating their physical presence in the South China Sea since the adoption of the DOC. 
Photographic evidences indicate that claimants have been involved in various infrastructure projects that aim to intensify their military and civilian presence in their occupied islands, islets, reefs and shoals with the strategic intention to prove their effective occupation of these areas and thereby strengthen their claims for ownership.  Proving their ownership of these areas has huge implications for the definition of their baselines and exclusive control and exploitation of rich maritime resources in the South China.    Because baselines controversies among claimants in the South China Sea have not been settled, there have also been overlapping fishing activities in the whole area.
Fishing activities in the South China have been major sources of irritants among claimants as they accuse each other of illegal fishing and poaching in their internal waters.  To justify the construction of facilities in their occupied territories, claimants even call these facilities “fishermen shelters”.  Some claimants even erected some light posts and observation towers in their controlled areas in aid of navigation.  It is already known that there is an enormous navigational traffic in the South China Sea making it one of the maritime superhighways of the world. 
Because of strategic and economic value of the South China Sea, all claimants, except Brunei, have invested their resources in their occupied territories to maintain and consolidate their physical presence and prove their effective occupation.  Since 2002, claimants have been engaged in a number of construction activities that aim to improve and fortify their military and civilian presence in their occupied areas.  
Vietnam presently occupies 21 islands, reefs and cay in the Spratlys.  It has impressive facilities in the Spratlys.  Its largest occupied island, Lagos (or Spratly Island), is the most heavily fortified with a solid runway, a pier, at least 35 building structures, around 20 storage tanks, at least 20 gun emplacements, at least 5 battle tanks and some parabolic disk antennas and a spoon rest radar.  In April 2009, Philippine aerial surveillance found a two newly-constructed two-storey building in the Lagos Island with 12 newly-installed light posts and 12 wind mills.
            Aside from Lagos Island, Vietnam also maintains facilities at Pugad Island (Southwest Cay), which is just less than two nautical miles away from the Philippine occupied island of Parola (Northeast Cay).  Pugad Island has several gun emplacements, gun shelters, civilian buildings, military barracks, parabolic disc antennas, concrete bunkers, a light house, a football field, a helipad, and many light posts. In April 2009, the Philippine Air Force sighted a supply ship in the vicinity of Pugad Island with newly installed light posts, polarized dipole array antenna, and a broadband facility.  Pugad Island also has a well-maintained lagoon suitable for tourists.  The surrounding waters of Pugad Island are also good for scuba diving and other water-based sports. 
Other facilities of Vietnam in at least 14 occupied reefs seem to follow a standard pattern of construction.  South Reef, Pentley Reef, Discovery Great Reef, Collins Reef, Pearson Reef, Lendao Reef, West Reef, Ladd Reef, Central London Reef, East Reef, Cornwallis Reef, Pigeon Reef, Allison Reef, and Barque Canada Reef have identical structures featuring a golden-painted three-storey concrete building with built-in light house on top, gun emplacements on both sides, T-type pier, solar panels, parabolic disc antennas, and garden plots.  
The Philippines
The Philippines ranks second in the most number of occupied areas in the Spratlys. It is presently in control of nine facilities that are considered parts of the Municipality of Kalayaan.  Its largest occupied facility is the  Pag-Asa Island (Thitu Island), the closest island to the Chinese occupied Subi Reef.  Pag-Asa Island has an already deteriorating run-way maintained by the 570th Composite Tactical Wing of the Philippine Air Force.  It also has a naval detachment maintained by the Naval Forces West of the Philippine Navy.  Pag-Asa island has municipal hall called Kalayaan Hall, a village hall called Barangay Pag-Asa, a police station maintained by the Philippine National Police (PNP), sports facilities, observation tower, a commercial mobile phone station, and several civilian houses and military barracks.  
Pag-Asa Island is the only occupied island of the Philippines with civilian residents.  At least five families reside in Pag-Asa.  This island is the main seat of the Municipality of Kalayaan established by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 1596 issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos on 11 June 1978.   Registered voters of Kalayaan Municipality cast their votes in Pag-Asa Island during local and national elections.  The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) maintains an office in Pag-Asa Island.  The Mayor of Kalayaan Municipality has released the Kalayaan Medium Term Development Plan, 2006-2010 to civilianize the management of KIG.
            The Philippines also maintains makeshift naval detachment facilities in five other islands, one reef and one shoal.  Its facilities in the Rizal Reef (Commodore Reef) are just wooden structures  and two small single-storey hexagonal concrete buildings manned by four personnel of the Philippine Navy.  The Philippines also maintains a naval detachment in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) established out of a dilapidated Landing Ship Tank called LST 57.  Ayungin Shoal is the closest structure of the Philippines to the controversial Mischief Reef occupied by China.
Though China does not occupy any island in the Spratlys, it has solid facilities in seven reefs and shoals with concrete helipads and military structures.  Its much publicized structure is in the Mischief Reef, which currently has a three-storey concrete building and five octagonal concrete structures in the vicinity.  The three-storey building has a basketball court, dipole and parabolic disc antenna, search lights, solar panels and cross-slot type radar.  In April 2009, the Philippine Air Force sighted three naval vessels in the vicinity of Mischief Reef: Fulin Class Survey Ship, Shijian Class Survey Ship and Yannan Class Survey Ship.  Three fishing vessels were also sighted in the lagoon of Mischief Reef.
            China maintains a very impressive helipad facility in the Johnson Reef.  This reef has three-storey concrete building armed with high powered machine guns and naval guns.  Johnson Reef has identical structures in Chigua Reef and Gaven Reef.  In April 2009, the Philippine Air Forces sighted in Johnson Reef a Huainan Jiangwei Class Frigate with body number 560 and it was believed to be armed by surface to surface missile, surface to air missile, 100mm guns, 32mm guns, anti-submarine mortars, and Harbin Z9A Dauphin Helicopter.
            Malaysia, which presently occupies five areas in the Spratlys, has well-maintained facilities in the Swallow Reef.  This reef has a diving center called “Layang-Layang”.  Swallow Reef has a resort-type hotel, swimming pool, windmills, communication antennas, control communication tower, civilian houses, military barracks and a helipad. 
Malaysia also has a very good facility in the Ardasier Reef with an excellent helipad, sepak takraw court, gun emplacements and control tower.  The facilities in the Ardasier Reef are almost identical with the Malaysian facilities in Erica Reef, Mariveles Reef and Erica Shoal.    Malaysia also maintains a symbolic obelisk marker in the Louisa Reef.
Taiwan only occupies one island called Itu-Aba, officially named by Taiwan government as Taiping Island.  It is the largest and the most heavily fortified among the occupied islands in the Spratlys.  It has more than 50 buildings used for military and civilian purposes.  Itu-Aba has excellent helipad and a very long run-way inaugurated by then President Chen Shuibian in March 2008.  The whole island is protected by at least 500 troops armed with at least 20 coastal guns, 20 gun emplacements and communication towers.  Like other occupied islands in the Spratlys,  Itu-Aba has several parabolic disc antennas, radars, solar panels and concrete bunkers.   The island also has firing range and sports facilities.  Aerial surveillance of the Philippine Air force in April 2009 indicated that Itu-Aba has newly-constructed three-storey building, new access ramp, and a new firing range. 
Because Brunei does no occupy structure in the Spratlys, it is the most passive and benign claimant in the South China Sea.  However,  the South China Sea forms a significant part in the strategic agenda of Brunei because of its claims in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that creates some occasional irritants with Malaysia.  As a party to the DOC, Brunei promotes regional security cooperation and development in the South China Sea. 
Summary of Infrastructure Improvements and Construction Activities
From the foregoing, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have invested their resources to erect solid and more stable structures in their occupied areas.  Philippine structures in its nine occupied territories remain modest and in the dismal stage of rapid deterioration.  However, the Philippines occupy the most number of Islands (Kota, Lawak, Likas, Pag-Asa, Parola and Patag) that are vegetated and suitable for human habitation if properly developed. 
China does not occupy any island in the Spratlys.  But its occupied reefs have solid and highly cemented structures.  Majority of the areas occupied by Vietnam are also reefs.  Like China, Vietnam’s occupied reefs have solid three-storey buildings that are identical.  Though Taiwan only occupies one island, it is, however, the largest island in the Spratlys.  Malaysia does not occupy any island like China.   But all Malaysian occupied reefs are located in an area of huge oil and natural gas deposits.  Moreover, its Swallow Reef called Layang-Layang is the most developed reef in the Spratlys for tourism purposes. Brunei does not occupy any island or islet in the Spratlys.  But its claims to EEZ overlaps with other claimants including conflict with Malaysia over the Louisa Reef. 


  1. Hi Rommel, I cited this paper of yours in my new blog article, Thanks.

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