China's Land Reclamation and Island Building Not Territorial Expansion

Media Coverage | January 12, 2016

In an article for Xinhua News, Mark Burgess interviews EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin who argues China's land reclamation and island building is not naked aggression, but rather a case of China defending its historical territory claims. 

China's artificial island building in the South China Sea is a product of defending its historical territory claims and not a case of territorial expansion, an Australian expert has told Xinhua.

China's reclamation efforts in the Nansha Islands, though not illegal, have shocked strategic analysts despite the moves being made so China avoids conflict with other claimants who have already occupied all "natural" islands in the area.

"The idea that the building of these artificial islands is somehow creeping territorial expansionism is really not what China thinks it is," said Professor Greg Austin, fellow at the EastWest Institute in New York and visiting professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Austin, a former Australian intelligence analyst turned academic who has studied the South China Sea for over 30 years, said China is defending historical claims that were first made in 1933 by the then government and date back almost five centuries.

"China is trying to keep alongside a position against the rival claimants who have occupied all of the natural islands. China's only natural option was to build up these artificial Islands."

The land reclamation efforts are essentially a catching up of what other regional claimants have previously done: expand the islands they hold and build "what you might call reasonable forward posts that are habitable," Austin said.

"We shouldn't allow our shock at China's building up of artificial islands to somehow convince us that this is naked aggression by China. It's not naked aggression," Austin said, noting the threat to commercial shipping is "completely fabricated."

"There is no evidence of any Chinese government attack or pressure on any commercial shipping in the South China Sea since 1949 when the Communist Party took control of the Chinese mainland, and even before."

The only countries to ever use significant force against commercial shipping in the South China Sea were the Japanese and allied forces against each other in World War II.

Austin all but rejected assertions of a regional conflict between China, the United States and other claimants as stressed by U.S. Republican lawmakers - in an election year - following the first test flights of commercial aircraft landing on Yongshu Jiao.

Instead, Austin suggested the current rhetoric is "stoking the level of political intensity," given Vietnam and the Philippines also have airfields and military assets in the disputed areas.

"What this is about is geopolitical positioning," Austin said.

"The complaint now is that the Chinese have outdone the Vietnamese and the Philippines," from a greater access to wealth and capability to build the airfields.

"The recent tensions in the South China Sea are serious (but) they're more political than military," Austin said.

He said it is time for Chinese and regional authorities to be "a bit more creative" and called on China to take a leadership role and settle the dispute once and for all.

"As senior Chinese officials have said in the last two weeks, China showed great flexibility, great responsiveness in negotiating disputed land boundaries along its border in the last 20 to 30 years, including the disputed border with the former Soviet Union and Russia," Austin said.

"We're really looking to China now to see how it can apply its creativity to try and settle down its dispute."

To read this article on Xinhua News, click here