Now that recent satellite images have revealed the extent to which Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China are rapidly reclaiming coral reefs in the South China Sea, the countries are scrambling to come up with valid legal justifications for the brinkmanship.
The Philippines is denying wrong-doing by claiming that its reclamation work constitutes maintenance, distinguishable from large-scale construction that would clearly implicate China:
The Philippine foreign minister denied China's accusations of recent massive reclamation, saying the country had done minor, but legal, repair and maintenance within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the disputed area some years ago. "We were doing some repairs and maintenance after the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) but repairs and maintenance is allowed," Albert del Rosario said. "Massive reclamation is not."
Vietnam, so far, has kept a low profile since new images were released showing expanded construction in the Spratly Islands chain. China's approach has been surprisingly proactive, acknowledging their own extensive reclamation efforts but framing them as necessary steps to fulfill obligations to the international community. Its territorial expansions, supposedly, will be used to facilitate disaster relief, ocean and weather monitoring, and maritime search and rescue. China even invited the United States to use their facilities for those purposes "when conditions are right."
It is a shrewd argument that justifies China's reef building on the one hand, while undercutting the claims of its neighbors since they are not major powers with commensurate obligations to the international community. If providing public services were a genuine objective it might provide some assurances to the United States and other countries that are concerned there may be impediments to navigation and overflight as a result of the territorial claims, though China could always claim "conditions aren't right" for joint use. Unfortunately most of the installations appear militarized or have potential for militarization. Even if that weren't the case, the real value of the reclamation work may not the be the installations themselves, but the maritime rights that would attach - in addition to fisheries and tourism, the waters of the South China Sea have untold oil and gas reserves.