It was not until 1988 that there was Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands (Itu Aba Island was occupied by the Republic of China in Taiwan). Taking advantage of Vietnam’s difficulties in the late 1980s, China dispatched its navy to take over the features in the Spratly Islands, establishing a foothold in the south of South China Sea in pursuit of its ambition.
In late 1987 and early 1988, Vietnam was at the bottom of a socio-economic crisis with a stagnant economy and an extremely hard life of its people. At that time, the Soviet Union – Vietnam’s biggest backing – was also experiencing a socio-political crisis. Beijing took advantage of this opportunity to take over some features in the Spratly Islands. In early 1988, China illegally occupied the Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reefs, Subi Reef, and Hughes Reef of the Spratly Islands.
Many military experts analyzed that China’s use of force and massacre 64 Vietnamese soldiers, to occupy the Johnson Reef at all cost was to serve its intention to draw a line of more than 300 km across the South China Sea, adjacent to the rocks and islands under Vietnam’s control. The Johnson Reef is a rock located in Namyit – Sin Cowe Island Group, not too far from other rocks under Vietnam’s control.
China had the intention to take over Johnson Reef a long time ago for its long-term plan in the South China Sea. Before that, in early 1988, it already sent forces to illegally occupy five other features in Spratly Islands, including Fiery Cross Reef. Next, in 1995, China also took over Mischief Reef, which was under the control of the Philippines, by force.
The Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef are located on the same latitude, in which Johnson Reef lies in the middle (the Johnson Reef is 135 km away from the Fiery Cross Reef, and 170 km away from the Mischief Reef). By gaining control of these three features, China could control the entire Spratly Islands, thereby controlling Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ supply routes to their islands in the Spratly Islands.
Another reason for China’s occupation of these features is to gain a foothold to control Vietnam’s waters in the south of Vietnam and the Philippines’ waters as Fiery Cross Reef lies next to the 200 nautical mile of Vietnam’s EEZ, not too far from the Vanguard Bank and Rifleman Bank in Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf; while Mischief Reef lies within the 200 nautical mile EEZ and continental shelf of the Philippines.
Immediately after its occupation of the features in the Spratly Islands, in the 1990s, China started to reclaim and build facilities of moderate scale here as per its economic strength.
Onto the second decade of the 21st century, the Chinese economy made a great leap forward to become the second largest economy of the world after the US. The Chinese military capability, especially the navy, also grew significantly per se. Beijing decided to push forth and began building and expanding the occupied features in the Spratly Islands on large scale (constructing more than 3 km-long runway for combat aircrafts and shipyard for warships).
China has been reclaiming land and deploying weaponry, missiles, and military equipment since 2014 when the international community’s attention was focused on China’s placement of oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 within Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf.
To date, China has in general transformed the illegally occupied features in the Spratly Islands into artificial islands and military outposts for the purpose of further invasive expansion into the waters of the South China Sea littoral countries. In fact, this can be illustrated by the case of the Fiery Cross Reef in 2019. It now serves as a port for Chinese coast guard (CCG) and militia vessels (including the geological survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 08) to come back after intruding in Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf from early July to the end of October 2019. It is also where the CCG and Chinese fishing vessels set sail to violate the waters of Indonesian Natuna Islands from late December 2019 to early January 2020.
Other Chinese geological survey vessels, CCG and militia vessels also set sail from other China-occupied features in the Spratly Islands to violate the Philippine waters or jeopardize Malaysian oil and gas activities in Malaysia’s waters.
Legally speaking, China has so far based its “Three Shas” and then “Four Shas” concepts on the illegal occupation of the seven features in the Spratly Islands to claim a vast area to the south of the South China Sea, calling it with vague names not defined in international law, such as “related waters” or “adjacent waters.”
China’s plot to dominate the South China Sea is persistent. It tries to draw a perfect scheme to realize its ambition and has been carrying it out step by step professionally. To begin with, China occupied seven features in the Spratly Islands by force, and then proceeded to reclaim, expand and militarize them. Currently, it is operating the facilities on the features to support its violations in the waters of the South China Sea littoral countries, at the same time, building arguments to advocate for its absurd claims in the South China Sea.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was established for the Philippines vs. China case under the Philippines’ request and gave a ruling confirming that there was no structure in the Spratly Islands (including Itu Aba Island) eligible, under the provision of Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, to generate an EEZ and continental shelf of its own, but rather a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea at best.
Thus, China’s use of force to take control of the features in the Spratly Islands is a serious infringement of the UN Charter and international law. This also means Beijing’s suspension of its illegal occupation of the features to claim a larger area in the South China Sea constitutes an even more serious violation of international law, including the PCA’s ruling on July 12, 2016.
The PCA’s ruling on July 12, 2016 also clarifies that Chinese reclamation of the features in the South China Sea betrays its duty to protect and preserve maritime environment. Hence, China’s transformation of these features into military outposts to support its violation of the waters of other South China Sea littoral countries is another serious infringement of international law.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has seriously violated the UN Charter’s principle which prohibits the use of force by forcefully occupying the seven features in the Spratly Islands (it even caused a massacre when attacking Johnson Reef) to establish a foothold to realize the ill intent of monopolizing the South China Sea.
In the past 32 years since China first occupation of the features in the Spratly Islands by force, Beijing has been undermining international law, international opinion and keeps working on the expansion, buildup and militarization in the South China Sea to turn the occupied features into outposts for further expansion into the other South China Sea littoral countries’ waters.
Indeed, what Beijing is doing cannot create any “sovereignty” for China, but rather exposing China’s hegemonic and expansionist strategy, as well as its intent to monopolize the South China Sea, thereby raising concern for other South China Sea littoral countries and international community./.