China and the Philippines are quarreling again over the Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea. Even after softening its aggressive stance on territorial claims, China is still working on several land reclamation projects in waters disputed by Manila. One of China’s dredging projects in particular has become a flashpoint, because the emerging islet looks suspiciously airfield-like. Reuters reports on the latest developments:
China on Monday hit back at the Philippines for criticizing Beijing’s ongoing reclamation project in the disputed South China Sea, saying that its actions were within the scope of Chinese sovereignty. […]The United States has called on China to stop the land reclamation project that could be large enough to accommodate an airstrip. Beijing has called those remarks “irresponsible”, signaling that it would firmly reject proposals by any country to freeze any activity that may raise tension.Last week, Philippines General Gregorio Catapang told reporters that China’s reclamation in the area is “50 percent complete”.China reiterated that Beijing had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands, where most of the overlapping claims lie, especially between China and the Philippines.“China’s actions on the relevant islands and reefs are all matters within the scope of China’s sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
This is China’s “new look” posture in East Asia; it has notably reduced the rhetorical temperature in the region, but in reality hasn’t given any ground on its longterm territorial ambitions. Asia’s Game of Thrones may on the surface appear to be less dramatic and less dangerous than during the past few years, but it would be a mistake to think any of the deeper underlying issues have gone away.