China is dredging in a bay at Woody Island, its biggest settlement in the South China Sea, likely to expand the artificial islandâ€™s northwest corner, satellite imagery shows.
This development in the disputed Paracel island chain, in the northern part of the South China Sea, comes amid mounting concern in Southeast Asia over Chinaâ€™s assertion of its sweeping territorial claims.
In an unusual move Friday, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, pointedly called for maintaining free airspace over the South China Sea in reaction to reports that Beijingâ€™s plans to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the region.
Woody Island, where the dredging appears to have been underway for several weeks, includes Sansha City, Chinaâ€™s main administrative center in the Paracels — an archipelago of rocks and reefs disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Commercial satellite imagery between April 17 and June 25 shows the shallow fringing reef off Woody Islandâ€™s northwest coast, right next to the smaller of the islandâ€™s two harbors, has had a chunk dug out of its center. Also visible are a web of new land bridges that could be a foundation for more land reclamation, to expand the island.
Cranes or heavy machinery can be spotted working in the same spot on May 8. Based on Radio Free Asia and BenarNewsâ€™ review of the imagery, sand was likely dredged out of Woody Islandâ€™s shallows to create this new structure. The coastline nearest the foundation has been also been reinforced with what looks like a sea wall, and several smaller artificial jetty-like structures have been built at points along the coast to the east.
Woody Island often hosts ships of the China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinaâ€™s maritime militia before they deploy elsewhere, harassing shipping of other South China Sea claimants. Satellite imagery taken on Friday shows three CCG ships in the islandâ€™s harbor, along with what looks like a barge carrying material or supplies.
China undertook a massive land reclamation campaign between 2014 and 2016 to create new artificial islands in the South China Sea, destroying the natural environment and militarizing the occupied rocks and reefs shortly thereafter.
Virtually all of Chinaâ€™s occupied features in the South China Sea have had parts dredged up to make way for new settlements and military outposts. But the four biggest bases China maintains in the South China Sea, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Woody Island, are virtually unrecognizable since land reclamation was finished in 2017, granting them deep-water harbors, airstrips, and living facilities. But small-scale dredging has continued, as this latest satellite imagery shows.
The new dredging on Woody Island comes at a sensitive time. Last month, Indonesia joined with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia in denouncing Chinaâ€™s sweeping assertion of sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea in a series of notes to the United Nations. Indonesia cited a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that struck down the legal basis of most of Chinaâ€™s claims to the disputed waters, definitively stating none of Chinaâ€™s â€˜islandsâ€™ could generate exclusive economic zones and were only rocks.
More recently, China has tried to intimidate Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea, out of exploring for oil within its waters with an international partner by sending a government-operated survey vessel into Vietnamâ€™s exclusive economic zone on June 17.
Vietnam was the chair of Fridayâ€™s virtual summit of ASEAN leaders. All the claimants to the South China Sea were taking part, save for China and Taiwan.
â€œWhile the world is fighting against COVID-19 pandemic, there are irresponsible actions, violating international law, effecting to security environment and stability in some regions, including the ASEAN region,â€ Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his opening remarks, in a tacit reference to China.
The 10-member ASEAN bloc has long struggled to reach a consensus on issues related to the South China Sea, so Fridayâ€™s joint statement implicitly criticizing Beijingâ€™s reported plans for an ADIZ was an unusually pointed expression of concern over rising tensions.
On Sunday, China adopted a revision to its law governing the Peopleâ€™s Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary branch of its armed services that has been formally placed under the Central Military Commission alongside the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN).
The reform may signal that China wants to beef up the security forces it can draw on to police the South China Sea. The amended law now tasks the PAP with â€œmaritime rights enforcementâ€ and allows it to participate in joint exercises with the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army. The China Coast Guard is a constituent part of the PAP.
This week, navies of several governments have been on maneuvers in the South China Sea â€“ which is widely viewed as an effort to push back against Chinaâ€™s assertive behavior.
Japan performed a bilateral training drill with Singapore on Monday, and a bilateral exercise with the United States in the same area on Tuesday. The U.S. and Taiwan both sent maritime patrol aircraft south of Taiwan on Wednesday, seemingly tracking Chinese submarine movements in the area after a submarine was detected by Japan in the East China Sea last week.