Despite all the other issues that require China’s attention this year – the virus, its trade war with the United States, Hong Kong’s national security law, and a host of economic issues – the South China Sea been revived in recent months as an arena of serious tension. .
As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls China’s land claims in the South China Sea illegal for the first time, Alexander Neill examines China’s plans to expand its reach in the region.
The South China Sea, home to vital shipping routes, has been a critical point for years, with several countries claiming ownership of its small islands and reefs and, with it, access to resources.
In recent years, China has been increasingly assertive about what it claims to be its age-old claims on the disputed region, and has rapidly strengthened its military presence to support these claims.
The former commander of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, once called it the “Great Sand Wall” – a “nine-dash line” creating a protective ring and a network of supply around Chinese territory at sea, as the wall on land did.
But while China and the United States have increasingly exchanged barbed wire comments on the South China Sea, on the whole, they have managed to manage these differences.
Despite its trade dispute, the United States had avoided taking sides in China’s territorial disputes with other countries – other than to demand freedom of movement for its ships.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
- Beijing plan for South China Sea illegal, says U.S.
Criticism of China’s early treatment of the epidemic by the United States has enraged China.
Many Western leaders seem convinced by Mr. Pompeo’s argument that China was exploiting the pandemic to double its coercive behavior in general.
And these growing tensions took place in the South China Sea.
Military tensions at a worrying time
In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel struck and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands, which China and Vietnam claim to be theirs.
Then, a Malaysian oil exploration project also saw its operations interrupted off Borneo by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, supported by the navy and the Chinese coast guard.
As a result, the USS America, an amphibious assault ship of the US Navy, joined by an Australian frigate, was deployed in nearby waters.
The escalation continued with the deployment of two US Navy guided missile destroyers, the USS Bunker Hill and the USS Barry on Paracel and Spratly Islands (known respectively as Xisha and Nansha in Chinese ).
The warships have conducted Freedom of Navigation (FONOP) operations to challenge what the United States sees as a model of China’s illegal claims in international waters.
More recently, China has closed part of the maritime space to conduct naval exercises in the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands. The United States has said angrily that this violates Chinese commitments to avoid activities that exacerbate disputes.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has deployed not one but two carrier attack groups – the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan – for joint operations in the region.
In addition to US Navy fighters conducting aircraft carrier operations and P8-Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft plying the sea, the US Air Force sent a B-52 strategic bomber for good measure.
Chinese state media reacted with predictable vitriol.
The influx of the United States Navy into the South China Sea increases the risk of an incident between the two rival powers and a rapid escalation of hostility.
The situation is particularly dangerous given the recent trend in China to be more assertive in the face of its “main concerns”.
Its recent use of lethal force at its disputed border with India and the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong have prompted many to question the extent to which China will be restrained in its response to these challenges. .
What is the objective of China in the South China Sea?
Beijing sees the South China Sea as a crucial part of its maritime territory, serving not only as a bastion for its maritime nuclear deterrence based on the island of Hainan, but also as a gateway for the maritime silk route, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The South China Sea is essential, for example, for the future success of the economic development plan for the Great Bay of China region, into which Hong Kong is integrated.
China’s plan to populate the South China Sea was launched in 2012 when “Sansha City”, the administrative center of all the Chinese entities claimed in the South China Sea on Woody Island in the Paracels, was put in place at county level to prefecture level.
The government has relocated the small fishing community to modern housing, built a primary school, a bank and a hospital, and installed mobile communications. Tourists visited regular cruises to the islands.
The second phase of the plan was launched in April this year, when China created two other county-level administrative districts subordinate to the city of Sansha, including the establishment of the People’s Government of Nansha District, whose headquarters is on Fiery Cross Reef and administering all claimed Chinese characteristics of the Spratly Islands.
- Why is the South China Sea in dispute?
- What does the disputed island of Paracel look like?
In the six years since China began rehabilitating several reefs and atolls in the Spratlys, satellite and air surveillance have revealed one of the world’s greatest achievements in marine engineering and construction military.
In addition to military installations on the islands – including 3,000-meter runways, naval berths, sheds, bunkers with armored ammunition, missile silos and radar sites – images show accommodation blocks well laid out, administrative buildings covered with blue ceramic tiles, hospitals and even complex sports on the reclaimed islands, which have become visibly greener.
Subi reef now houses a farm – including a six-acre fruit and vegetable plot pollinated by bees imported from the mainland, a herd of pigs, flocks of poultry and fish ponds.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Academy of Sciences created an oceanographic research center on playful reefs in January 2019.
The best Chinese hydrologists have announced that the water table at Fiery Cross – once little more than a rock in the sea – has grown rapidly and will make water self-sufficient within 15 years (link in Chinese).
Islanders already have access to 5G mobile data and the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables shipped in refrigerated containers.
The imagery also shows large fishing fleets moored in the largest lagoons of the Subi and Mischief reef.
Perhaps for too long, fishing families could be permanently accommodated on the southernmost islands of China, their children schooled alongside those of the party and government officials.
An “irreversible” Chinese waterway?
The most symbolic evidence of China’s push into the South China Sea is literally carved in stone – transplanted from mainland China.
In April 2018, 200-ton commemorative megaliths, erected on each of the three largest island bases of the Spratly Islands, were revealed in some secret.
Extracted from Taishan stone and shipped to the Spratly Islands, the monuments resonate with the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation of President Xi Jinping.
Mount Taishan is considered to be the most sacred of the Chinese mountains, a symbol of Chinese civilization unbroken for thousands of years.
All this shows that China has entered a second phase of a plan calculated to make this great strategic waterway of Southeast Asia an irreversibly Chinese way.
Recent U.S. Navy exercises in the South China Sea have been aimed at demonstrating the United States’ determination to protect “freedom of the seas”: for the U.S. Navy to operate and ultimately protect the sea space through these waters. international.
In addition to US naval maneuvers, Pompeo’s announcement officially declaring that China’s claims in the region are “totally illegal” raises the question of what the United States is prepared to do next.
At a minimum, Mr. Pompeo wants to build a diplomatic coalition to demonstrate the self-isolation of China, not only with some of the other claimants but also with larger powers.
The United States could very quickly reduce the new Chinese district of Nansha to rubble of concrete and coral – but that would lead to a war for which neither the United States nor China has an appetite.
Alexander Neill is a military analyst and director of a strategic consulting firm in Singapore