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Asia's Game of Thrones
China Laying More Groundwork in the South China Sea

With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Asia this week, Reuters broke the story that China has started new construction work on yet another island in the South China Sea:

An image of North Island in the Paracels group taken on March 6 shows recent work including land clearing and possible preparation for a harbor to support what experts believe may be eventual military installations. Initial work was damaged in a typhoon last year.

The pictures, provided by private satellite firm Planet Labs, follow reports in January showing work undertaken on nearby Tree Island and other features in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Diplomats briefed on latest Western intelligence assessments say Beijing is pursuing efforts to dominate its maritime ‘backyard’, even if it tweaks the timing of moves to avoid being overtly provocative.

“The Paracels are going to be vital to any future Chinese attempt to dominate the South China Sea,” said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at Australia’s Defence Force Academy.

North Island is not one of China’s manmade islands, but preparing for a harbor or military installations there would have serious strategic implications. According to experts, reinforcing North Island will help to protect the missile launchers, jet fighters, and civilian facilities at nearby Woody Island, while also shielding the Chinese nuclear deterrent at Hainan.

China’s activity at the Paracels is sure to spook Vietnam, which claims the islands for itself. Hanoi has been known to react assertively to China’s maritime maneuvers: last year, for instance, it extended a runway at the Spratlys and begun dredging work at a disputed reef. Vietnam is still mum on what it will do next, but Taiwan (the Paracels’ other claimaint) has lately been sending out distress signals about China’s activity in the region.

As for the U.S. reaction, one source quoted by Reuters argues that Trump will be too distracted by other priorities to put up a fight over the South China Sea. But we’re not so sure: judging by the hawkish rhetoric of Trump and Tillerson on the subject, and Secretary Mattis’ long-established inclination to take a stronger stand against China’s maritime claims, the South China Sea is likely to figure highly on Trump’s agenda. Tillerson’s Asian trip this week should provide clues as to how Trump plans to confront Beijing on the issue.

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