This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s navy recently harvested 1.5 tons of vegetables on its biggest military base and civilian center in the Paracel Islands, in what state media portrayed Wednesday as vindication of Beijing’s position that disputed land features it claims in the South China Sea can sustain human life.
The navy has completed a sand-to-soil cultivation project on Woody Island in collaboration with a top-tier Chinese research university, potentially paving the way for self-sufficient farming on China’s other occupied reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, the Global Times reported.
People’s Liberation Army Navy troops garrisoned on Woody Island, which is China’s main administrative center in the South China Sea, had harvested vegetables from a beach that had been tested with an experimental treatment that turns sand into fertile soil. The project had been set up by a research team from Chongqing Jiaotong University.
Controversially, China has undertaken massive land reclamation works on disputed features in the Paracels and Spratly Islands in recent years to establish bases and advance its sweeping sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, which are contested by five other governments.
The Global Times cited Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, as saying that the vegetable harvest on Woody Island countered international theories, including those in a 2016 arbitration case between the Philippines and China, that islands in the South China Sea could not support communities of their own.
“Now China’s capability of being able to support civilians on these islands would allow more people to live on the islands,” Chen was quoted as saying.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), features must be capable of sustaining human habitation and an independent economy not reliant on imports of supplies from elsewhere to qualify as islands. Such features generate an exclusive economic zone around the island for the occupying state. None of China’s military bases and artificial islands in the South China Sea currently meet this standard, and as such they were ruled to be rocks or other non-island features in the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.
Making artificial islands and reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea habitable for human life has been a perennial problem for China, as the settlements China has built there lack freshwater and any soil to grow things in. Previous attempts to build greenhouses and import fertile soil from the mainland failed to provide enough food for the garrisons maintained on bases like Woody Island in the Paracels and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys.
Zachary Haver, a Washington, D.C.-based China analyst, said Sansha City – the prefecture-level city set up on Woody Island — is still reliant on regular deliveries of supplies from Hainan, although it is the hallmark of China’s reclamation efforts in the South China Sea.
“This being said, Woody Island is increasingly self-sufficient, at least in some respects, with robust electricity generation and seawater desalination capabilities,” Haver explained. According to him, local government officials in Sansha City have also deployed a range of incentives such as subsidies and public housing schemes to attract civilians to come live on the island.
The construction of bases and buildings on reefs and rocks has also degraded their foundations in recent years due to the tropical climate, as highlighted by Chinese researchers from the National University of Defense Technology in 2018.
While the members of the research team that set up the sand-to-soil project on Woody Island go unnamed, Chongqing Jiaotong University has previously experimented with the same methods to great success in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and in a partnership with the United Arab Emirates. Both of those projects’ teams were overseen by Professor Yi Zhijian, Chongqing Jiaotong University’s Vice President.
China has well-recorded problems with desertification, owing to poor farming practices and a lack of groundwater. Roughly 20% of the country is desert, lending urgency to scientific efforts to reverse the desert’s encroachment on fertile land. Professor Yi Zhijian developed and pioneered a ground-breaking cellular paste that can turn sand into fertile soil, publishing his work with it in 2016. That paste was then used on April 4 for the cultivation project on Woody Island, according to the PLA Navy.
This project could potentially have applications across other Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea – even if it doesn’t strengthen China’s claim to sovereignty over features in the first place. China bases those claims on a notion of “historic rights” unsupported by international law.
“The development of Woody Island is often seen as the blueprint for the development of other features in the South China Sea,” Haver said. “This is currently most noticeable on Tree Island in the Paracel Islands. The Woody Island model will likely be (or is already being) expanded to China’s artificial island bases in the Spratly Islands.”
China is not the only claimant in the South China Sea to insist its occupied features are islands, and experiment with ways to make them habitable under the provisions of UNCLOS.
Taiwan currently occupies the largest feature in the Spratlys, called Taiping Island, which was also ruled as a rock under the 2016 arbitral ruling. The Taiwanese military claimed the existence of fresh water on Taiping back in 2019. This would further Taiwan’s argument that Taiping is a legally valid island, as a lack of a freshwater supply was cited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration as a reason Taiping could not be considered so. Taiwan has also reportedly grown various vegetation on Taiping, including bananas, coconuts, and squash, without importing soil or using the same sand-to-soil methods as China.
The Philippines has also attempted to grow a sustainable food source on Thitu Island, a feature it occupies in the South China Sea, but with less urgency and success. Desalination plants to turn sea water into freshwater are planned to be built on the island this year, Philippine media have reported.