Ever since last year when satellite imagery confirmed that China was constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea, journalists, security specialists and even government officials uncritically have adopted terminology that obfuscates rather than clarifies the issues at stake. No term has been so abused as “land reclamation” both in its everyday usage and legal meaning.
A commentary written by Chinese academic Shen Dingli argues that there is no prohibition in international law about land reclamation. He cites the examples of Shanghai city, Japan’s Kansai International Airport, Hong Kong and Dubai. None of these examples are comparable to what it taking place in the South China Sea.
Let’s be clear: China is not reclaiming land in the South China Sea in order to improve conditions on a land feature – an island – that has deteriorated due the impact of the environment or human use. China is dredging sand from the seabed and coral reefs to create artificial islands. China misleadingly states it is reclaiming land on islands over which it has sovereignty. This is not the case. China is building artificial structures on low tide elevations (submerged features at high tide) and rocks. China cannot claim sovereignty over these features. These features are not entitled to maritime zones or airspace.
China is working to become the hegemon of the western Pacific, and Obama is simply going to look away and let it happen. For all the hype about a Pacific Pivot, nothing the administration has done has had any effect on China, and no realistic policy has been announced or even considered that will deter China from becoming increasingly belligerent with its neighbors.