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Asia's Game of Thrones
S. China Sea Standoff Heats Up as Beijing Arms Artificial Islands

Not long ago, China defended its building of bases and ports on artificial islands in disputed waters by insisting that they would not be for military purposes. In fact, Beijing claimed, they would be useful for any ships in the region caught asea in extreme bad weather, like typhoons. As everybody expected, that picture of beneficence turns out not to be accurate. U.S. surveillance over the newest additions to South China Sea’s Spratly Island chain showed that China has started arming them up. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The U.S. imagery detected two Chinese motorized artillery pieces on one of the artificial islands built by China about one month ago. While the artillery wouldn’t pose a threat to U.S. planes or ships, U.S. officials said it could reach neighboring islands and that its presence was at odds with China’s public statements that the reclaimed islands are mainly for civilian use.

“There is no military threat,” a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. “But it is about the symbolism.”

While posing no military threat to the U.S., the motorized artillery was within range of an island claimed by Vietnam that Hanoi has armed with various weaponry for some time, the American officials said. Vietnamese officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

China’s response to the condemnation of the recent developments has not been contrite. It’s not budging from an absolutist line that this is rightful sovereign territory on which it can operate any way it chooses:

“It needs to be emphasized that the Nansha [Spratly] Islands is China’s territory, and China has every right to deploy on relevant islands and reefs necessary facilities for military defense,” said Zhu Haiquan, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy. “However, the facilities on relevant islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes.”

The U.S., for its part, is taking the opposite line. On a plane from Hawaii to Shangri-La as part of his ten day trip to Asia, SecDef Ash Carter, said the U.S. policy on the matter is to behave as though this is absolutely not Chinese territory. He noted that the U.S. vessels and aircraft that are navigating through what China now says is an exclusion zone are following routes that they had already been travelling along. “The new facts are not created by the United States,” he said, “the new facts are created by China.”

The stage is set for confrontation, and it’s hard to see either side backing off from it’s current position anytime soon. Washington has just moved towards a more forward-leaning stance on the territorial issue, and historically speaking, freedom of navigation in major trade routes is one of the things the U.S. is least likely to cave on. For China’s part, Beijing seems to be turning back towards a more assertive stance towards the U.S. across the board, not just on the matter of maritime territory. And even if it wanted to back off now, that would create tricky domestic issues.

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  • Anthony

    “The Asia security field is crowded one these days, and that is a good thing. The region is confronting a number of destabilizing threats: disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas, weak governance in several Southeast Asian nations, and continuing uncertainty over North Korea’s intentions and capabilities, among others. All are long-term, ongoing challenges, and the more ideas that get out there about how to manage these issues, the better.”

    “No issue gets as much attention, however as the U.S.-China relationship and what it means for regional security. For most, it boils down to whether the era of U.S. primacy is over. If it is, what should the next stage look like and how does China fit in? If not, how does the United States preserve its role as the fundamental security guarantor in the region and how does China fit in?

  • Kevin

    I find the contrast with Modi’s border negotiations with Bangladesh interesting. Why did one nationalist leader look for cooperative outcomes with a weak neighbor while the other feels compelled to push for a maximalist outcome?

  • Tim Ryan

    lt is time – past time, really – to grant statehood to Guam & the Northern Marianas territories. That makes the “second island chain” part of the US homeland and leaves no doubt that the US is not an interloping power from half the world away, but also a regional power who will defend herself & her allied neighbors from any aggression.

  • Rick Johnson

    ‘historically speaking, freedom of navigation in major trade routes is one of the things the U.S. is least likely to cave on’

    Historically speaking, the U.S. has never had such a spineless, insipid President who has repeatedly failed to stand up for American interests in the wider world. 2017 can’t come soon enough. Even Hillary would be an improvement.

  • Dan Greene

    >>”Not long ago, China defended its building of bases and ports on artificial islands in disputed waters by insisting that they would not be for military purposes.”

    It would be nice if TAI could characterize the sources it is citing with accuracy. What the NYT article actually said was this:

    “Such constructions are within China’s sovereignty and are fair, reasonable, lawful and do not affect nor target any country, and are beyond reproach,” [the Chinese spokesman] said. She added that the islands would also be used for China’s military defense but did not give details.”

    So they did NOT say that it would not be used for military purposes. What they did was downplay its military/defense function and foreground the supposed international benefits.

    Would be nice to see this imagery. Not much utility in emplacing ground-warfare-oriented artillery pieces in the South China Sea, but Vietnam’s possessions in the Spratlys have long been fortified, so maybe this is symbolic in some way.

    I think TAI’s “Fight! Fight! Fight!” approach to analyzing this issue is off base as well. I doubt that we are heading for any real short-term confrontation (i.e., threat of war.) The US is not going to interfere with Chinese island-building activities, and China is not going to challenge US overflights or ship passages, so where will the confrontation come from?

    I think the article is also wrong in saying this: ” [Ashton Carter] noted that the U.S. vessels and aircraft that are navigating through what China now says is an exclusion zone are following routes that they had already been travelling along.”

    I see nothing that substantiates the claim that China has declared an exclusion zone in the Spratlys yet. It may be that we pre-empted such a plan, but it’s not clear that China felt ready to undertake a move that would have been challenged after the fact in any case (as happened in the East China Sea.) So our move is more likely meant to foster an anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific region and also to create a situation in which we could demonstrate strength vs Chinese weakness.

    Chinese construction activities will obviously continue. The Nine Dash Line may have no international legal consensus behind it and only a partial historical basis, but it is China’s Monroe Doctrine. China is now fully aware that we intend to perpetuate our unipolar dominance if we can or something as close to it as we can manage. As a result, they are re-examining their long-game strategy and determining that they need to secure dominance in the waters adjacent to China–the South and East China Seas–rather than allow themselves to hemmed in. It’s interesting that China was the last of the four major claimants in the Spratlys to build an airstrip, mostly because China only has possession of reefs rather than islands and has had to use the island building scheme to create land. It’s move to create these islands may be legally dubious but the move is quite brilliant. If we had done it, TAI would probably be hailing it as a symbol of American ingenuity.

    When we declared our Monroe Doctrine, it was only symbolic, as we had little force to back it up and little inclination to do so. But by the end of the 19th century, we WERE in a position and became quite aggressive in “our” hemisphere. We fomented a revolution that created the state of Panama after Colombia refused to give us rights to build an isthmian canal. We started a war with Spain to eject them from the eastern approaches to “our” canal, elbowed the British out of Venezuela, and intervened as we pleased in Central America and the Caribbean.

    We could do that because by the turn of the 20th century, the European powers were either in decline or focused elsewhere. And there were no real powers other than us in the Western Hemisphere. The situation for China is quite different. It is faced with asserting itself in an environment with multiple other significant powers and a global hegemon that has no intention of “going quietly into that good night.” So it’s moves to take strategic control of the South China Sea are contested every step of the way and are fraught with geopolitical risk.

    China will keep on building and eventually establish military facilities which no one else will easily be able to match. Vietnam has many more islands and reefs in the Spratlys, but only China could custom-design and have built the huge dredger ship it is using to build these islands. No doubt, China hopes to inherit the largest single natural island in the Spratlys from Taiwan some day. And at some point there will be military aircraft, anti-ship missiles, radar installations, perhaps submarine facilities. But in the main, China’s long-game strategy is still in place, and this Spratlys issue will probably subside until such time as China really believes it can assert itself–decades from now.

    So our overflights in the Spratlys are mostly for show. They don’t change the basic dynamic. If we really want to escalate in the SCS, the obvious step would be to provide the resources for Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia to build up their military capabilities in the islands/reefs that they occupy in the Spratlys and perhaps obtain some sort of presence in some of them ourselves. That would definitely change the situation. The question is whether we want to dedicate the resources to do that and what China’s reaction would be.

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