In what is becoming an intensely contentious situation, China is ramping up its naval ambitions amid fierce criticism from Washington. As we reported on Monday, the Beijing-backed Global Times has suggested that a war with the US may be in the cards if China isn’t left alone to complete its “construction work” in the contested Spratly archipelago.
What Beijing calls “construction work”, Washington calls an unacceptable attempt to “redraw maritime boundaries” via the building of “sandcastles”, a reference to China’s land reclamation efforts atop the Fiery Cross Reef. Because Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, it says the construction of ports, cement plants, and airstrips atop the artificial islands its dredgers have built is no different in principle than the construction of roads on the mainland, a contention which the US and its regional allies view as absurd.
If there were any remaining questions about China’s maritime resolve, they were answered unequivocally on Tuesday with the release of the country’s 2015 defense white paper which indicates that Beijing is set to increase its “open seas protection” after countries with “ulterior motives” have busied themselves “meddling in South China Sea affairs.” Beijing also indicates that its air force will shift from a purely defensive strategy to an offensive stance, a nod to what we have described as the establishment of an effective no-fly zone over the Spratlys. Finally, China accuses Japan of "dodging" post-war norms by "overhauling its military." Here’s more from the report:
As the world economic and strategic center of gravity is shifting ever more rapidly to the Asia-Pacific region, the US carries on its "rebalancing" strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region. Japan is sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies. Such development has caused grave concerns among other countries in the region. On the issues concerning China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China's reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests. Certain disputes over land territory are still smoldering…
In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from "offshore waters defense" to the combination of "offshore waters defense" with "open seas protection," and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.
In line with the strategic requirement of building air-space capabilities and conducting offensive and defensive operations, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense, and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations. The PLAAF will boost its capabilities for strategic early warning, air strike, air and missile defense, information countermeasures, airborne operations, strategic projection and comprehensive support.
And more from Reuters:
Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said China's reclamation in the Spratlys was comparable with construction of homes and roads on the mainland.
"From the perspective of sovereignty, there is absolutely no difference," he told reporters.
Some countries with "ulterior motives" had unfairly characterized China's military presence and sensationalized the issue, he said. Surveillance in the region was increasingly common and China would continue to take "necessary measures" to respond.
Adding insult to injury for the US, China went on to broadcast a groundbreaking ceremony for two lighthouses Beijing is building on its new islands with a government spokesman indicating that no slowdown in development would be forthcoming because after all, those are some important shipping lanes.
China also hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the building of two lighthouses in the South China Sea, broadcast on state television, defying calls from the United States and the Philippines for a freeze on such activity.
The construction was to help maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection and navigational security, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Wu Shicun, president of the government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the lighthouses were among the first of planned civilian-use facilities in the region.
"The reefs are located near an important commercial shipping route, so there will be continued development to maintain the security of those shipping lanes," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Meanwhile, Japan will join the US and Australia in conducting war games in July in what Washington calls "unprecedented trilateral cooperation."
Via Reuters again:
Japan will join a major U.S.-Australian military exercise for the first time in a sign of growing security links between the three countries as tensions fester over China's island building in the South China Sea.
The Japanese personnel will embed with U.S. forces while 500 New Zealand troops will join Australian contingents, according to the Australian Defence Force website.
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani rebuffed suggestions the exercises were aimed at China, telling Reuters that Japan simply wanted to improve military cooperation with the United States and Australia.
Security cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo has already flourished under Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe, with Japan seen as the frontrunner to win a contract to supply next generation submarines to the Australian navy. U.S. commanders have publicly supported such a tie-up.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear highlighted Washington's goal of boosting cooperation between its allies in testimony to the U.S. Senate this month.
"To expand the reach of these alliances, we are embarking on unprecedented trilateral cooperation," he said.
As for China, they're "not worried":
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked if Beijing was concerned the exercises appeared to be targeted toward China, said it was "not worried".
So while all of the above certainly seems to indicate that the world may be closer to a catastrophic global conflict than it's been since the Cold War, rest easy because as China will tell you, World War III isn't likely — at least not in the "forseeable future":
"In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely."