AS if there aren’t enough territorial disputes the world over, China is — literally — manufacturing a new one in the South China Sea by transforming a series of lonely reefs into small islands.
Where nautical charts once identified bumps in the sea as Mischief Reef, Gaven Reef and others, China is dredging massive amounts of sand to create artificial islands. Over the past year or so, at least five of these new land masses have popped up in the chain of ocean specks and dots known as the Spratly Islands.
An example: Johnson South Reef, formerly a concrete platform atop submerged rock, now appears via satellite photos to be a sandy island hopping with Chinese construction activity. There’s speculation China is building an airstrip.
This land grab on water has the attention of the United States because it raises new concerns about China’s intentions as a rising Pacific power.
There is nothing new about competing territorial claims over the Spratlys. But only China claims the near entirety of the South China Sea. And only China is audacious enough to try to bolster that claim by building islands, and assigning military forces to protect them.
China’s neighbors are not happy. Five other governments have claims on all or some of the Spratlys: the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. None recognizes China’s contention that it controls of the South China Sea. The US, with a strong interest in defending international law and protecting open sea lanes, also rejects China’s claims.
A US official told The Wall Street Journal that China’s actions are “destabilizing.” James Hardy of Jane’s Defence Weekly went further, telling the Journal: “We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air- and sea-capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain.”
The question is what to do. This is a conflict that could turn volatile. And there’s probably no way to untangle all the competing ownership claims over every atoll and islet. But there may be a way to draw China and the others toward a compromise that keeps the peace. A shooting war is not an option.
If you look at a map of the South China Sea, you might wonder why Beijing is involved. Most of the Spratlys are between the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s nearest shoreline is 500 miles away. Its claim is based on the assertion that Chinese navigators discovered the islands and that Chinese fishermen have plied those seas for many centuries.
There’s reason to covet the area. It’s still a rich fishing ground, and there are likely significant oil and gas reserves below. Mostly, though, claiming the islands means expanding territorial control, and for China that means projecting sea power. Vietnam and China battled over Johnson South Reef in 1988. China won; about 70 Vietnamese sailors died. “When you get to the heart of it, it’s about nationalism,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells us.
That’s why the US ought to get more involved, though our government has no stake in which reef or rock belongs to whom. What’s vital: unfettered access to shipping lanes that are among the most important anywhere to global trade.
China’s clever gambit — or fiendish plot, if you prefer — is predicated on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which assigns sovereignty and other rights. Coastal countries and islands get territorial control for 12 nautical miles from shore, plus 200 miles of exclusive fishing and mineral rights. A rock at sea gets the 12 miles of jurisdiction but no exclusive economic zone. And if you have only a reef? You get nothing.
So China, adept at manufacturing, builds islands to enforce its sovereignty claims and head off a legal challenge at the UN by the Philippines. In court, China’s strategy shouldn’t hold water: Islands are habitable, naturally formed land masses, not artificially juiced-up sandbars. “You can’t just change a reef into an island,” Poling said.
At sea, the situation is different. China’s artificial islands are there, and protected by its military. Vessels getting too close are likely to be warned away, or driven away by a patrol boat firing a water cannon. Theoretically, China could try to claim the airspace, too. That would escalate this dispute immediately.
How far will China go to pursue its claims on the South China Sea? Beijing is keeping its stated intentions ambiguous, but building islands is a provocative act that must be challenged. The US already has been pushing China to stop its reclamation projects to no avail, the Journal reports.
If Washington is doing nothing more than keeping the issue on its radar, and maybe passing a diplomatic note or two, that’s not good enough. We know there are more than enough other crises in the world to distract the White House, but past efforts at soft-pedaling a resolution to the Spratlys problem haven’t worked. The US cannot let China blithely bully its way into this neighborhood.
The best solution is to press for a broad-based deal among all the countries involved that sets out basic rules for keeping the South China Sea open, sharing natural resources and resolving day-to-day disputes. The US should push for that agreement and elevate the diplomatic pressure on China, making it clear no country has a right to control international waters, especially by manufacturing islands.
China would be smart to play a long game rather than pursue this brash one-upmanship. It is a rising military power, but its future prosperity depends on its ability to cooperate with others. China may be a force, but in terms of global relationships, it isn’t an island.-
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