Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes a Paramilitary Response

February 6, 2019  |  AMTI BRIEF

Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes a Paramilitary Response

On February 4, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that construction of a new beaching ramp at Thitu Island would be completed in early 2019. Thitu is the largest of the nine features occupied by the Philippines in the Spratlys Islands and is home to about 100 civilians along with a small military garrison. The ramp, which was originally scheduled for completion in 2018, will facilitate the delivery of construction equipment and materials to the island for further planned upgrades, especially to its crumbling runway. AMTI previously tracked the start of repair work on the runway in May 2018, but that appears to have been halted while the beaching ramp is completed. Continue reading “Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes a Paramilitary Response”

Vietnam Expands Another Outpost

Vietnam continues modest expansions to its outposts in the Spratly Islands, most recently on Ladd Reef. Satellite imagery from March and June shows that Hanoi has dredged a new channel, which did not exist in older photos, and is expanding one of its two facilities (the other is a small lighthouse to the west) at the feature.

Continue reading “Vietnam Expands Another Outpost”

Why China is building islands in the South China Sea

Vox_Since 2014, China has been building islands in the middle of the South China Sea. What were once underwater reefs are now sandy islands complete with airfields, roads, buildings, and missile systems. In less than two years, China has turned seven reefs into seven military bases in the South China Sea, one of the most contentious bodies of water in the world.

The sea is one of the most important areas of ocean in the world. It’s estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of oil, 109 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 10 percent of the world’s fisheries. Most importantly, 30 percent of the world’s shipping trade flows through the South China Sea to the busy ports of Southeast Asia. It’s an incredibly important strategic area, and five countries currently claim some part of it.

Most countries base their claims off the

href=””>United Nations Law of the Seas, which says a country’s territory extends 200 miles off its shores, an area called the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. Any trade or resources that fall in a country’s EEZ belong to that country; they’re its sovereign territory. Any area that is not in an EEZ is considered international waters and subject to UN maritime law, meaning it’s shared by everyone. Every country in the region, which includes Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam, bases its claim to the South China Sea on the UN’s EEZ laws — except China.

China argues it has a historical claim to the South China Sea, dating back to naval expeditions in the 15th century. After World War II, the Japanese Empire lost control of the South China Sea, and China took advantage of the moment to reclaim it. On maps, it started drawing a dashed line that encompassed most of the South China Sea. This line became its official claim and is known today as the Nine-Dash Line, because it always has nine dashes. In 1973, when the UN law established EEZs, China reaffirmed its Nine-Dash Line, refusing to clarify the line’s boundaries and rejecting other countries’ claims.

Since then, tensions have built around who rightfully owns the South China Sea. The dispute has centered on the Spratly Islands, an archipelago at the heart of the South China Sea. Currently, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam claim some part of the Spratly Island chain. They’ve asserted their claims by putting small buildings, ports, and even some people on what are essentially rocks in the middle of the ocean.

But the Spratlys are very important, because whichever country can successfully claim them can extend its EEZ to include them, thus gaining miles of precious sovereign territory. This is why China began building up islands in 2014. By turning these rocks into military bases, the Chinese are now able to support hundreds of ships, bolstering their presence in the region. They are using fishing boats, surveillance ships, and navy destroyers to set up blockades around other countries’ islands and defend their own. This is all done very cautiously and in small steps in order to avoid sparking a wider conflict.

Since China began building islands, the disputes have not become violent. But tensions are building in the region. As China deploys more of its military to the Spratlys, other countries are getting nervous and building up their own islands. It’s a complex situation that will continue to gain international attention, for better or for worse.

China’s Fury Over South China Sea Belies Its Legal Insecurities

04 July 2016

Sonya Sceats

Associate Fellow, International Law

chathamhouse – Despite its dramatic rejection of the South China Sea arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, China is gearing up to play a much larger role in the evolution of the international legal system.

A vendor in Beijing stands behind a map including an insert depicting the 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea. Photo by Getty Images.A vendor in Beijing stands behind a map including an insert depicting the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea. Photo by Getty Images.

It is tempting to read China’s refusal in this case to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague as the defiance of an arrogant superpower that views itself as above international law. No doubt many in Manila, Washington and elsewhere are purveying this view. But there is more here than meets the eye.

For decades, Beijing has complained that the global order was forged in an era when China was weak and the rules of the game are rigged against it. Continue reading “China’s Fury Over South China Sea Belies Its Legal Insecurities”

CSIS – AMTI Brief – May 13, 2016

Vietnam’s Island Building:
Double Standard or Drop in the Bucket?
China has sought to deflect criticism of its island building in the South China Sea by accusing other claimants, especially Vietnam, of doing the same. AMTI has examined each of the islets and reefs Vietnam occupies in the Spratly Islands and found evidence of reclamation at 10 of them. The images below suggest Vietnam has created just over 120 acres of new land in the South China Sea, mostly at Spratly Island, Southwest Cay, Sin Cowe Island, and West Reef. The majority of this work has occurred in the last two years. Continue reading “CSIS – AMTI Brief – May 13, 2016”

CSIS – Southeast Asia from Scott Circle – April 28 2016

The Overlooked Gap in the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative

By Conor Cronin (@ConorCroninDC ), Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

April 28, 2016

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s trip to the Philippines on April 13-15 was an affirmation of U.S. support for its treaty ally amid the simmering South China Sea maritime disputes. The timing of his visit—at the end of the annual Balikatan U.S.-Philippine joint exercises and just weeks before an expected decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Philippines’ arbitration case against China’s nine-dash- line claim—was a clear message to Beijing and Manila that Philippine maritime security is a priority for the United States. Continue reading “CSIS – Southeast Asia from Scott Circle – April 28 2016”

Exclusive: U.S. sees new Chinese activity around South China Sea shoal

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

CSIS: AMTI Brief – February 22, 2016

Another Piece of the Puzzle: China Builds New Radar Facilities in the Spratly Islands

China’s airstrip construction at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs, and more recently developments in the Paracel Islands, have dominated the South China Sea discussion. But capabilities being developed at its smaller Spratly Island outposts—Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South, and especially Cuarteron reefs—will prove equally important to Beijing’s long-term strategy. Continue reading “CSIS: AMTI Brief – February 22, 2016”

CSIS: AMTI Brief – Evaluating the Asia-Pacific Rebalance – Feb 4, 2016

AMTI Brief – Evaluating the Asia-Pacific Rebalance

Evaluating the Asia-Pacific Rebalance

The Center for Strategic and International Studies last month completed an independent review of the defense portion of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific. This review, which includes an evaluation of the rebalance’s implementation and resourcing as well as recommendations for its improvement, was mandated by the U.S. Congress under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Continue reading “CSIS: AMTI Brief – Evaluating the Asia-Pacific Rebalance – Feb 4, 2016”

CSIS: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiatie, Dec. 18, 2015 brief

A Case of Rocks or Islands?

This issue of AMTI explores the ongoing case between China and the Philippines at the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The Philippines argued the merits of its case against China’s claims in the South China Sea before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague from November 24 to 30. As it has since the case was filed in early 2013, China refused to recognize or take part in the proceedings. Continue reading “CSIS: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiatie, Dec. 18, 2015 brief”

A Return to the Rule of Law in the South China Sea?

The UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling that it has jurisdiction in the case brought by the Philippines will likely improve prospects for the rule of law in the South China Sea – and it is in China’s interest to contribute to this development.
DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Photo via Getty Images.DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Photo via Getty Images.

Chathamhouse – China has been on a diplomatic charm offensive last week to improve its relations with  neighbours who have a stake in the stability of the South China Sea (SCS), reaching out to Vietnam and Japan and  culminating in the historic meeting with Taiwan’s leader Ma Ying-jeou on 7 November. This followed on from recent setbacks for its ambitions in the SCS . First, the United States sent its warship USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese controlled Subi Reef to challenge China’s claim to the feature. Then, on 29 October an arbitral tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and hosted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague found that it has jurisdiction to hear the claims put forward by the Philippines in a case against China concerning maritime rights in a part of the SCS claimed by both. Continue reading “A Return to the Rule of Law in the South China Sea?”

A Code of Conduct for Maritime Security

November 11, 2015

From November 14-22, President Obama will embark on a three-stop overseas trip, beginning in Turkey to attend the G20, followed by a stop in Manila for the APEC summit, and ending in Malaysia where he will meet with Asian leaders for the 10th East Asian Summit (EAS) and U.S.-ASEAN Summit.

Maritime security

With more than 130,000 ships passing through the Straits of Malacca, Southeast Asia is a critical maritime region for commerce and resources. Photo/Flickr user salehi hassan http://bit.ly/1SjxL8H

asiafoundation – One of the biggest and most contentious issues at the EAS will no doubt be maritime security, as conflicting territorial and boundary disputes feature prominently in the region. However, none of these disputes will be resolved at the EAS and most likely not for several years to come. At last week’s ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus in Kuala Lumpur, leaders failed to release a joint statement amid disagreements over China’s objection over the South China Sea being mentioned in the document. Continue reading “A Code of Conduct for Maritime Security”

CSIS Southeast Asia SIT-REP, Aug. 27, 2015

CSIS Southeast Asia SIT-REP

The SIT-REP gives you links to all of CSIS Southeast Asia’s (@SoutheastAsiaDC) best updates and programs in a five minute read. This issue includes a report on the future of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, analysis of some challenges facing Myanmar ahead of its elections, profiles of two of Indonesia’s newest cabinet members, and much more. Links will take you to the full publications, multimedia, or to registration for upcoming programs when available. To jump to a section, select one of the following: Continue reading “CSIS Southeast Asia SIT-REP, Aug. 27, 2015”

CSIS AMTI Brief – August 13, 2015

AMTI Brief – August 13, 2015

Remembering World War II in Maritime Asia
On August 15, 2015, the world observes the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific Theater. This edition of AMTI commemorates the conclusion of the conflict and its legacy for maritime Asia. Read special features on the strategic role that maritime Asia played for the victorious allies, including the United States, European powers, and the Soviet Union, as the war ended. Below, view 15 maps that help to explain why the Pacific Theater looked the way it did in August 1945, and why the conclusion of the conflict continues to shape geopolitics in East Asia today. [Read On]

Expert Analysis

August 1945: A Snapshot of American Maritime Strategy in the Pacific
When Japan surrendered 70 years ago this month, the United States stood supreme in the Pacific.  Only the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy had surface combatants that could roam freely from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea and these remained a fraction of the massive “Big Blue Fleet” the U.S. Navy had deployed.  With the exception of Taiwan, parts of the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese archipelago and a smattering of isolated South Pacific atolls, the entire offshore island chain in the Western Pacific was under the control of the United States and its allies. [Read more from Michael Green] 

Calm and Storm: the South China Sea after the Second World War
In the early hours of 4 February 1945 two Australian commandos, Alex Chew and Bill Jinkins, paddled away from an American submarine, the USS Pargo, and landed on Woody Island in the Paracels. In the weeks beforehand, American airmen had reported seeing a French tricolour flying on the island and ‘Z Force’ had been tasked to investigate. Chew and Jinkins discovered there were indeed French people on the island but also Japanese sailors and so retreated to the sub. The Pargo surfaced and shelled the buildings for several minutes. The first ‘Battle of the Paracels’ was a one-sided affair. [Read more from Bill Hayton]

The Legacy of the Soviet Offensives of August 1945
The Second World War was an unparalleled calamity for the Soviet Union. As many as 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died as a result of the conflict that started with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ended with the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Consumed by this existential struggle along its western border, the Soviet Union was a comparatively minor factor in the Pacific War until the very end. Yet Moscow’s timely intervention in the war against Japan allowed it to expand its influence along the Pacific Rim. With the breakdown of Allied unity soon heralding the onset of the Cold War, Soviet gains in Asia also left a legacy of division and confrontation, some of which endure into the present. [Read more from Jeff Mankoff]

Featured Maps

Japanese Centrifugal Offensive, December 1941
In December 1941, Japan’s Centrifugal Offensive was launched to gain control of the Western colonies in Southeast Asia and create a defensive perimeter to protect against an Allied offensive. It succeeded in capturing most U.S., British, and Dutch held territory. By the end of February 1942, Tokyo had secured all Western colonial possessions with the exception of part of New Guinea and Macau.


Estimated Japanese Strength on or about August 15, 1945
As fighting concluded in the Pacific Theater, an estimated 4.9 million Japanese soldiers remained stationed throughout the Pacific Islands and Asia.


Areas Under Allied and Japanese Control, August 15, 1945
At the conclusion of the war, Japan was still extended throughout the Pacific as Allied offensives continued to chip away at its holdings.


Territorial Clauses of the Japanese Peace Treaty

Attached to the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, this map illustrates the territory Japan relinquished in the postwar settlement. Chapter II, Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty are included in small print indicating the treaty’s territorial clauses with relevant island groups marked as shown. These include the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories, the Ryukyu Islands (including the Senkakus), and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.