The United States just conducted a third freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea, but the Pentagon doesn’t expect its efforts will do much to give Beijing pause about its island construction plans. On the contrary, U.S. officials expect building to accelerate. Reuters:
China is expected to add substantial military infrastructure, including surveillance systems, to artificial islands in the South China Sea this year, giving it long-term “civil-military bases” in the contested waters, the Pentagon said on Friday.In its annual report to Congress on China’s military activities in 2015, the U.S. Defense Department estimated that China’s reclamation work had added more than 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) of land on seven features it occupied in the Spratly Islands in the space of two years.It said China had completed its major reclamation efforts in October, switching focus to infrastructure development, including three 9,800 foot-long (3,000 meter) airstrips that can accommodate advanced fighter jets.
All indications are that China believes 2016 is a critical year for the South China Sea. President Obama has hesitated to use the U.S. Navy to pressure Beijing, despite the advice from senior military officials. Obama spent months debating whether to conduct freedom of navigation operations at all, apparently worried that his efforts might endanger the president’s other priorities—particularly climate change and nonproliferation. Worse, the White House did a poor job keeping its wavering to itself, sending mixed signals that continue to frame the geopolitics of the South China Sea. No one knows who will win the U.S. election, but it looks like Beijing thinks it has an opportunity to change the conditions on the ground enough that future administrations would have little choice but de facto to accept Chinese sovereignty.