America accuses Beijing of building “wall of sand” to grab South China Sea

The US has intervened in a row among a number of countries in south-east Asia over territorial rights in the South China Sea. 

The long-running dispute between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines over where the international border lies has been intensified in the past 12 month by China’s apparent drive to assert its claims over the Spratly Islands, and the rights to the oil basin beneath them.  

America’s contribution to the diplomatic struggle was made by Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, in a speech to a naval conference in Australia yesterday.  

Harris accused China of "unprecedented land reclamation" by "creating a great wall of sand" over four square kilometres, in the disputed zone. He said Beijing had dredged to create a string of islands across some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.  

Harris said China had been "pumping sand on to live coral reefs and paving over them with concrete" then adding buildings, wharves and runways. The creation of the island, which is inhabited, can be used to bolster Beijing’s legal claim to ownership of the area. Is can also be used to project military force beyond the mainland. 

Admiral Harris warned in his speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute about the increasing potential for "miscalculation" between regional players. 

He urged China and other nations to conform to the ASEAN code of conduct, which commits nations to exercise self-restraint. "How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or co-operation," he said. 

In an exchange with the BBC last year, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said its operations in the Spratly Islands were "entirely within China’s sovereignty and are totally justifiable".  

Asked whether the reclamation was for commercial or military use, she replied that it was "mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands". 

China has been offering its fishermen a fuel subsidy if they agreed to fish of the Spratlys. 

Tensions over ownership resulted in rioting in Vietnam in May last year that left 21 dead and 100 injured. The violence was caused by reports that China had moved a drilling rig into disputed waters.  

The dispute is presently the subject of a case before the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. The matter was referred by the Philippines, but China has said it will not engage with it. 

Image: Building work continues in the Spratly Islands at Fiery Cross Reef (Source: CSIS)

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