The Chinese are preparing to build infrastructure on Scarborough Shoal, in a potentially game-changing move for the South China Sea. Reuters:
China will begin preparatory work this year for an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, an official said, as two U.S. senators introduced a bill to impose sanctions on its activities in the disputed waterway. […]
This week, Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, said China planned to begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal. […]
The monitoring stations, along with docks and other infrastructure, form part of island restoration and erosion prevention efforts planned for 2017, Xiao told the official Hainan Daily in an interview.
Make no mistake, this a big deal. Even President Obama, who let Chinese installations metastasize under his watch, drew a red line at Chinese construction on Scarborough Shoal, and reportedly got Xi to back down from those plans in a private meeting. And the Philippines has recently warned that building on Scarborough would be “unacceptable,” even as it tries to mend fences with Beijing and work on an informal deal to restore Filipino fishing access there.
Scarborough Shoal’s is of critical strategic significance to China. Experts suggest that it forms the third point in a “strategic triangle” with the Parcel Islands and Spratly Islands, which would allow China to expand its operational reach over the entire South China Sea. If China were able to militarize Scarborough Shoal, it would likely move to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire region, as it did with the East China Sea. And the shoal is less than 150 miles from the Philippine coast: alarmingly close to the Philippines’ Basa Air Base, where U.S. troops can be stationed under a bilateral military pact.
It may be a long while before China can effectively develop Scarborough Shoal, but the news about preliminary construction suggests that they are putting their toes in the water to see whether the U.S. will push back. The Senate seems awake to the threat, and is introducing legislation to sanction companies involved with China’s buildup. Will the Trump Administration echo that message, and back up Obama’s red line? We may soon have an answer as Rex Tillerson confronts his counterparts in Beijing this weekend.