China is planning to build an “environmental monitoring station” on a hotly disputed reef at the center of an ongoing territorial row over the South China Sea, according to a top official who administers Beijing’s regional island claims.
Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie was quoted by the official Hainan Daily newspaper as saying the stations were being built on six islands and reefs, including Scarborough Shoal — a chain of rocks and reefs just 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast.
According to the report, the other stations mentioned by Xiao were to be built on features in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea further to the North. China, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the Paracels.
Scarborough Shoal is claimed by China and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan. Beijing seized it in 2012 after an extended standoff with Manila and later blockaded the lagoon, which is rich in fish stocks.
The monitoring station report comes just over a week after the Philippines’ defense chief reportedly said President Rodrigo Duterte had drawn “a red line” on any reclamation by China of Scarborough.
“Once the Chinese start exploring, putting rigs there, we’ll talk to them,” Lorenzana was quoted as saying Duterte told him. It was unclear when the conversation took place.
Lorenzana said in February that he believed Beijing would eventually reclaim the shoal, known in China as Huangyan Island, according to media reports.
Experts say Chinese building at Scarborough would create a large “strategic triangle” comprised of Woody Island and its man-made outposts in the Spratly Islands, giving Beijing the ability to police an air defense identification zone that would cover much of the South China Sea, effectively turning the strategic waterway into what some have termed a “Chinese lake.”
The impact of such a strategic triangle would be tremendous for both the United States’ and Japan’s strategic planning, some say, and could be a game-changer in regional power relations.
“The Scarborough Shoal is clearly the next flash point,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst and assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
“Within the People’s Liberation Army, our understanding is that they’re determined to incorporate the contested shoal into the strategic triangle in the South China Sea,” Heydarian said. “But I think the political leadership is still undecided.”
Heydarian said the political hesitancy was likely due to fear of a forceful response by the United States as well as the likely negative, game-changing impact on blossoming bilateral relations with Duterte in the Philippines.
Washington has ramped up its presence in the region, conducting so-called freedom of navigation operations near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. The U.S. has also flown A-10C attack planes through international airspace in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal.
In the latest example of increased tensions in and over the waters, a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese military plane were involved in an “unsafe” encounter near the shoal in February.
Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said any large-scale island-building at Scarborough would “pose a direct challenge” to the U.S. and Duterte, but added that much remained unclear.
“This is a environmental monitoring station,” Zhang said. “So the impact is hard to tell at the moment.”
Zhang, however, said even small-scale moves at the shoal would not be “strategically prudent” for China.
“China values good relations with the (Donald) Trump administration but this ‘limited’ Chinese agenda for Scarborough Shoal may lead to escalation of the South China Sea situation with the United States,” Zhang said.
“China may also ruin its hard-earned improvement of relations with Manila,” he said. “While Duterte wants to shelve the disputes there, any Chinese moves may corner him as well. He will be facing mounting domestic pressure to react to China’s latest moves.”
Such a push by Beijing, Zhang said, could act as a tripwire, igniting larger, more explosive issues across the Asia-Pacific.
“So it is not smart for China to consider this move,” Zhang said. “A seemingly local agenda may trigger larger than expected ripple effects, harming China’s broader interests in the region.”