Beijing says controversial work in South China Sea aimed at 'better weather forecasts'

Ahead of US talks, Beijing says building facilities in disputed waters is part of obligation to region

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2015, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 10:45am

Beijing has defended its controversial construction work in the South China Sea, saying ahead of a crucial Sino-US meeting that it needs to build meteorological facilities to improve its weather forecasts.

The justification by two of China's most prominent meteorological scientists came on the eve of a meeting in Washington in which maritime disputes are likely to be high on the agenda.

In separate interviews with People's Daily, Ding Yihui of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and Zheng Guoguang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, said China needed meteorological facilities in the disputed waters.

They said such facilities were needed to improve forecasts that would benefit the region, which was "suffering from frequent oceanic disasters and extreme weather and climate events".

"The construction of infrastructure for observation and communication is the first step towards enhancing and improving marine meteorological monitoring, warning, forecasting, prediction and scientific research," Ding said.

Zheng said better weather forecasting was China's responsibility towards the region, to help it deal with disasters such as typhoons, and to increase safety for fishing vessels and other marine traffic.

Last year, China alarmed its neighbours by stepping up land reclamation on several reefs close to the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Nanshas. Washington has repeatedly urged Beijing to stop the work.

Benjamin Herscovitch, research fellow with the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies, said Beijing's meteorological ambitions were part of a multi-faceted strategy for claiming the disputed waters.

He said Beijing was not only employing high-profile and high-risk strategies like land reclamation, runway construction and naval brinksmanship in the disputed waters, it also sought to strengthen its territorial claims by expanding its civil presence.

"By establishing meteorological facilities, China's administrative footprint grows and the case for de facto Chinese sovereignty becomes more plausible," Herscovitch said

The People's Daily interviews came just two days before the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington on Tuesday.

Herscovitch said the talks were likely to feature strong US objections to Chinese territorial advances in the South China Sea. He said Beijing saw gaining control of these waterways as a "core national interest" and the growing military disparity between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours gave it the power to push through with its plans to take control of the bulk of the South China Sea.