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.