When last we checked in on what has to this point been a war only of words (although that could change quickly) between the US and China over the latter’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea, Beijing had just issued its 2015 defense white paper which signaled a shift in focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection” and also indicated that the PLA Air Force would move towards “offensive” strategies.
This was essentially a thinly-veiled reference to the country’s intention to set up what will effectively be a no-fly zone over the islands it’s built atop reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Earlier this month, a US spy plane had a close encounter of the PLA kind when a PA-8 Poseidon carrying a CNN crew was told to “Go Now!” by the Chinese Navy when the surveillance aircraft came too close to Fiery Cross Reef.
Washington has responded with all manner of amusing rhetoric including the characterization of China’s islands as “sand castles”. The US is also set to conduct war games with regional allies in a show of maritime force.
Now, the US says it has detected artillery on one of the man-made islands. WSJ has more:
U.S. surveillance imagery shows China has positioned weaponry on one of the artificial islands it is developing in the South China Sea, American officials said, supporting their suspicions that Beijing has been building up reefs for military purposes.
The U.S. imagery detected two Chinese motorized artillery pieces on one of the artificial islands built by China about one month ago. While the artillery wouldn’t pose a threat to U.S. planes or ships, U.S. officials said it could reach neighboring islands and that its presence was at odds with China’s public statements that the reclaimed islands are mainly for civilian use…
American officials said that the equipment more recently has either been removed or purposely obscured from view by the Chinese. It was unclear how or why the equipment was no longer visible...
A Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington wouldn’t comment specifically on the weaponry, but said its development work within the Spratly Islands—known by the Chinese as the Nansha Islands—was primarily civilian.
“It needs to be emphasized that the Nansha Islands is China’s territory, and China has every right to deploy on relevant islands and reefs necessary facilities for military defense,” said Zhu Haiquan, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy. “However, the facilities on relevant islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes.”
Of course, China isn’t the only country to have built “sand castles” in the region, but it is the only country to have done so that isn’t a US ally, which Beijing quite plausibly contends is the reason for Washington’s hostility:
Ms. Hua and other Chinese officials assert that Washington has a double standard, criticizing the U.S. for being “selectively mute” about construction activities carried out by other countries in the region.
She didn’t name those claimants, but Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines have also engaged in reclamation and other work in areas they control.
“If it’s not a double standard, then there must be some hidden motives behind that,” Ms. Hua said at a daily media briefing.
Washington’s response: size matters.
U.S. officials said the reclamation efforts by those countries are on a far smaller scale than China.
In sum, China has created some 1,500 acres of new sovereign territory this year alone and has indicated it will defend that territory just as it would the mainland. That's a problem, says US Defense Secretary Ash Carter who told an audience in Hawaii that make "no mistake", the US intends to "fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as [it] does all around the world."
Clearly, Beijing's position cannot coexist peacefully with Washington's position which is why we continue to believe a shooting sand castle showdown may be in the cards.