We are all familiar with the endless (and expensive) foolishness of ‘beach nourishment’, of the idiocy of Dubai’s artificial sand islands and the general ravages of ‘sand wars’ around the world, but now it seems that sand-shifting is taking on an ominous geopolitical role.
“There was this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other side using a tube.” This is the description by Pasi Abdulpata, a fisherman from the Philippines, of what he saw happening in the South China Sea towards the end of last year. He was quoted in an article in Bloombergearlier this year (which I missed), and the issue has now been picked up by the BBC. Abdulpata was fishing around the Spratly Islands, a sprawling archipelago of only-just-islands and only-just-submerged reefs.
The Spratly Islands would not figure on the global geopolitical agenda if it were not for the fact that they occupy a significant area of the South China Sea, all of which is claimed by China, and some of which may harbour reserves of oil and gas. There are, however, a number of countries – five to be exact – who have different ideas about who owns what and where the international boundaries should lie. This map, from another Bloomberg article, summarizes the ‘anxious archipelago’:
The sand-sucking was going on at the Johnson South Reef, occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam, and the site of the 1988 ‘Johnson South Reef skirmish’ in which more than 70 Vietnamese died, two Vietnamese boats were sunk and the Chinese took over. They built some kind of structure on the reef, purportedly for erosion protection, and it has been the strategic destination of fishing and patrol vessels ever since. But the sand-sucking dredging and pumping activities are something new, and have been dramatically documented by satellite imagery and the Philippines Government, as described in Jane’s earlier this year:
China is attempting to bolster its presence in the South China Sea by creating an artificial island on a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Satellite imagery provided by Airbus Defence and Space corroborates images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs that shows major land reclamation on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by Manila as Mabini Reef, as Chigua Reef by China and Gac Ma by Vietnam.
Johnson South Reef was at the centre of a 1998 confrontation between China and Vietnam that left more than 70 Vietnamese personnel dead. After taking control of the reef China built a concrete platform and installed radio and communications equipment.
The images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that since February 2013 there has been extensive dredging of the atoll to create an islet around the platform. Other concrete structures have also been constructed.
The ministry said the construction appeared to be designed to support an airstrip and said it was "destabilising and in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) and international law. Mabini Reef is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) which is part of Philippine territory".
The article contains this series of images which show the large-scale ‘nourishment’ of the islands:
As The New York Times has reported, in May US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scolded China for “land reclamation activities at multiple locations” in the South China Sea. Is this the beginning of a further – and dangerous – episode of ‘sand wars’?
[Image at the head of this post: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, via Associated Press, as included in The New York Times article. The BBC also has an 'immersive story' which is well-worth a look.]