China to restore Spratlys' reefs destroyed due to island-building

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 4) — China placed facilities to restore coral reefs destroyed by its island-building in the disputed South China Sea, state-run Chinese news outfit Xinhua said.

The facilities on ecological protection and restoration began operating on Tuesday, according to the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources. These were placed in Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef, Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, and Subi (Zamora Reef) in the Spratly Islands.

Xinhua cited the ministry saying the coral reefs are "key to the ecological security of the Nansha Islands and the whole South China Sea region."

The Chinese ministry also launched marine observation stations on the reefs, which offer regular information services such as marine forecasts and disaster warnings to passing ships.

For Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, China's announcement only legitimizes the establishment of its military bases in the area.

"It is trying to mask its militarization of the area by higlighting possible civilian benefits/public goods provided by their artificial islands," Batongbacal told CNN Philippines.

He also expressed doubts regarding China's intention to fix the reefs.

"Coral reefs on its artificial islands have been completely destroyed and buried in concrete, so it is not likely the true objective of the announced project. Assuming it will be actually implemented, more likely the intended rehab areas are other reefs," he explained.

Beijing has previously constructed weather stations in the region, as well as other military structures.

A 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration — the international tribunal which invalidated China's nine-dash line claim over most of the South China Sea — found that China has caused "severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem" amid its land reclamation and construction of artificial islands in the global waterway.

China and the Philippines are two of the six claimants in the disputed waters. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims.