Looking at China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, CNBC asks, “Is Beijing making a new ‘strategic strait’?”
“The logical conclusion drawn from China’s adding … islands in the southern part of the South China Sea with military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms and space to accommodate military forces is that China’s objective is to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will,” Peter Dutton, professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a February speech at London’s Chatham House.
“Building the islands is therefore, in my view, a significant strategic event,” he said. “They leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, rather than an open component of the global maritime commons.”
Speaking with CNBC, Dutton explained that there are few circumstances where China would want to restrict commercial movement in the area, but “the real problem” is that Beijing could readily exercise that capacity in times of crisis or conflict.
Whatever Beijing’s goals, it’s clear that they’re moving full-speed ahead toward achieving them. Yesterday, China turned on a lighthouse on the Subi Reef, literally sending a signal about its intentions to control the area. China’s aggression has created some recent backlash: Vietnam has been complaining about China’s placement of an oil rig, and the the Philippines is preparing for a verdict in the case it brought against China at the Hague and conducting joint exercises with the United States Navy. So far, however, nothing is slowing Beijing down.
If Beijing can block trade or innocent military passage in the South China Sea, that would be a problem in the event of a serious conflict, but it also would raise the likelihood of a serious conflict developing. With these concerns in mind, U.S. policy has been to maintain freedom of naval navigation for decades—freedom not just for American tankers, but for Greek tankers and Japanese tankers and also Chinese tankers. Continuing this policy remains an essential building block for world peace.