Beijing has plans to start construction on the disputed Scarborough Shoal this year.
China has reclaimed land in both the Spratly and Paracel Islands and constructed military outposts, but it has been hesitant to start construction on the Scarborough Shoal. Xiao Jie, the mayor of Sansha — an administrative base for China’s South China Sea activities masquerading as a city — said this week that China intends to construct environmental monitoring stations on a number of territories in the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal.
It is unclear if China plans to carry out dredging and reclamation work.
Drawing a red line for Beijing, former President Barack Obama told China in March that it would face “serious consequences” if it carried out construction on the shoal, which is claimed by both Beijing and Manila. The previous administration’s tough stance on the shoal issue reportedly caused China to withdraw its ships from the area, giving Obama officials the impression that they had secured an important victory.
But, now Obama is gone, and China is making bigger plays in disputed waters.
As the previous administration was on its way out, China began throwing its weight around in the South China Sea. The Asia Maritime Transparency initiative detected Chinese point defense systems in the Spratlys in December, and in February, the research group noted extensive militarization of the Paracels. The Spratlys and the Paracels make up two corners of what is known as the “strategic triangle” in the South China Sea; the remaining corner is the Scarborough Shoal.
News of China’s plans for the Scarborough Shoal comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Beijing for discussions with senior Chinese officials, meetings likely to focus on issues such as North Korea, trade, and the South China Sea.
China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea, demarcating its claims with an arbitrary nine-dashed line. China’s claims to the region were discredited last summer by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Beijing rejected both the authority of the tribunal and the ruling, while continuing its activities in the South China Sea; Tillerson previously called these activities “illegal” during his confirmation hearing.
China forcibly seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012.
Earlier this week, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act, which would prevent Chinese people who contribute to illicit construction projects in disputed waters from obtaining U.S. visas. The legislation would also sanction foreign financial institutions that “knowingly conduct or facilitate a significant financial transaction for sanctioned individuals and entities.”
The Chinese foreign ministry called the proposed legislation was “extremely grating,” and condemned the “arrogance and ignorance” of the senators.
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