China's Island Building+Climate Change: Bad News
Over the past two years, China has been methodically terraforming small reefs and shoals into islands in the highly contentious South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is important not only because of its strategic, trade, and resource potential but also because many of the claimants’ direct links with the U.S. such as the Philippines. China’s progressive pace of reclamation and the exponential growth of infrastructure on these islands has alarmed the international community. China’s ambitions have yet to be confirmed since Beijing remains tight lipped, adding cause for concern by the SCS’s surrounding nations.
It appears that Beijing’s efforts are a coordinated attempt to wrest control of the SCS by a novel policy of “island-building” that is analogous to the systematic encroachment policy pejoratively known by China watchers as “salami-slicing.” It is important to draw a distinction between terraforming claims by other nations, such as United Arab Emirates’ coastal city of Dubai, and China’s claims. Dubai’s reclamation efforts of the Palm and World Islands off the Emirati coast are not part of an expansive territorial grab or to defend Emirati territory. Meanwhile, the on-going island reclamation by China in the SCS is not the same since these reclaimed islands are hundreds of miles from the nearest Chinese dry land and manifest a Chinese bent toward military projection.
The international community is witnessing the unveiling of a new geopolitical reality: terriclaiming. Terriclaiming, short for territorial-reclamation, describes a nation’s reclamation activity that seeks to preserve or expand its land and/or maritime territory. Chinese terriclaiming in the SCS should be addressed with urgency by the U.S. and the international community as it serves our short term and long term national interest. Here are the two main reasons:
First, inaction by the U.S. or international community will effectively grant a green light for copycat behavior. There are more than 150 littoral (coastal and island) nations with maritime claims. The Earth’s seascape is filled with multiple, shallow and littoral areas that are crisscrossed by adjoining national borders. Many of these boundaries sit atop vast resource-rich and strategic areas and could have their maritime borders redrawn by the terriclaims of an ambitious neighbor. Aside from the SCS, three of the most vulnerable areas to terriclaiming are the Arctic, the Persian Gulf, and the Baltics. Each of these areas borders a strategic, economic, and political fault line for U.S. policymakers.
Second, sea-level rise, on the account of climate change, will redraw all the current maritime boundaries in the not so distant future. Since the 1950s, the Hong Kong observatory on the north side of the SCS has registered as much as 0.1 inch of sea-level rise a year. Globally, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that sea-level rise will rise at least 1.6 feet in 2050 and by over 3.3 feet at end of the 21st century. Because sea-level rise is not homogenous for a variety of reasons, some areas, such as the SCS, will experience more rise than other areas. But the existing features (islands and rocks) and the competing and extant territorial claims in the SCS may be effectively washed-out by 2050.
Nations around the SCS are anticipating this rise and have embraced various programs and initiatives to protect their interests, including China. Yet, as the waters rise, China’s current terriclaims may be all that remain above the new water level.
But the SCS is not the only threatened area due to climate change. Over seventy-one percent of the globe is covered in water so all nations have a stake in the challenge posed by sea-level rise. To date, there is no international agreement that addresses terriclaims, sea-level rise, or guarantees lost land or maritime territory as a result of sea-level rise. Both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of State are cognizant of both China’s island reclamation activities and the challenges posed by sea-level rise, but there is no U.S. policy to address them. Two weeks ago the DoD officially ruled out a proposed aircraft carrier visit to China this year because of Chinese behavior in the SCS. Dr. Michael Szonyi, a Chinese studies professor at Harvard University and Department of Defense consultant, states that “US policy so far has been adequate to cope with the short-term cycles of tensions in the South China Seas. But climate change, SLR, and terriforming change the dynamic, and, if it is to succeed in the long term US policy needs to take that into account.”
Chinese actions in the SCS, while provocative to the other claimants in the SCS, appear to be legally arbitrary under existing international law. The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) leaves room for interpretation and doubt about how to address terriclaims and sea-level rise. Under UNCLOS, a nation’s actual territorial boundaries will recede or shift as the water levels rise. In an extreme scenario, a littoral nation could even disappear altogether or suffer what the IPCC terms a “loss of confidence.” This is not addressed in the convention as it was drafted in the 1970s and its drafters did not foresee the geopolitical consequences of either climate change generated sea-level rise or terriclaims. Without a new international agreement or a major revision to the existing UNCLOS, nations will scramble to preserve or guarantee their maritime territorial rights against sea-level rise under the existing UNCLOS framework, leaving some to choose terriclaiming.
There are three possible solutions that have been floated to include “fixing” currently existing maritime boundaries; extensive revision of UNCLOS, or alternatively attach an addendum agreement to UNCLOS if there is not enough international heavy-lifting to revise it; or create an entirely new framework under a separate international accord. It is in the U.S. and international policymakers’ interest to address the long-term issue of sea-level rise because any movement on sea-level rise would simultaneously advance the interlinked and short-term challenge of China’s terriclaims. Sea-level rise may be one of the greatest ecological challenges this century, but it does not have to be one of the greatest geopolitical ones as well.