For those who may have missed it, China’s land reclamation efforts in the Spratlys have become one of the most important geopolitical stories of the year.
In an effort to project the country’s growing military prowess, the PLA navy has used a collection of dredgers to build a series of islands atop reefs in the South China Sea, and although that actually isn’t unprecedented (some of China’s neighbors have embarked on similar projects), the scope of it is, as Beijing has so far constructed some 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory.
Of course these aren’t exactly inconsequential waters. On the contrary, these are shipping lanes through which trillions in global trade run and Washington’s regional allies aren’t particularly enamored with China’s “sand castles,” which some view as an attempt to build illegal military outposts.
This all comes as the PLA has taken on a more assertive role, expanding its patrols and even showing up unexpectedly in Yemen earlier this year to evacuate civilians trapped in the country’s war-torn port city of Aden.
Well, don’t look now, but the US is set to direct its own ships to sail around Beijing’s South China Sea islands simply to prove that Washington hasn’t lost all military credibility. Here’s FT:
The US is poised to sail warships close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea as a signal to Beijing that Washington does not recognise Chinese territorial claims over the area.
A senior US official told the Financial Times that the ships would sail inside the 12-nautical mile zones that China claims as territory around some of the islands it has constructed in the Spratly chain. The official, who did not want to be named, said the manoeuvres were expected to start in the next two weeks.
The move, which is likely to raise tensions between the powers, comes amid disagreement over several issues, including US allegations that China is engaging in commercial cyber espionage.
Ashton Carter, US defence secretary, has been seeking permission to take more assertive maritime actions for months. The White House had resisted because of concerns that such actions would escalate the situation in the contested waters of the South China Sea. But it finally agreed after officials failed to make headway on the issue during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Washington.
In his press conference with Mr Xi last month, President Barack Obama said he had expressed “significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarisation of disputed areas”, and stressed that the US would “continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows”.
While the US has routinely sailed ships through international waters in the South China Sea, it has refrained from sending them inside the 12-nautical mile zone of the artificial features since 2012, which was before China ramped up its construction activities around the Spratlys.
The new tack is intended to reinforce the US stance that China’s claims are not consistent with international law, including the United Nations Law of the Sea (Unclos).
So essentially, the US is doing this just to see if it still can without getting shot at. Of course Washington got a hint of how determined China is to enforce what amounts to a no-fly zone over these islands earlier this year when the PLA essentially threatened to shoot down a PA-8 Poseidon spy plane with a CNN crew on board over Fiery Cross.
All of the above is also interesting for what it says about international diplomacy. Just last week Chinese President Xi Jinping made the PR rounds in the US and dined at the White House and apparently, America's Nobel Peace Prize winning commander in chief was unable to come to some kind of understanding that de-escalates the island issue.
As is the case with countering Russia in Syria, the US needs to decide what to do quickly lest Washington should effectively be left with no options at all other than to just fold. Here's FT again:
Rory Medcalf, an Asia expert at Australian National University, said there were “no easy or risk-free options for challenging China’s passive-aggressive strategy of manufacturing and militarising islands” in the region. “If the US is serious about ensuring that China does not dominate these waters, then the longer it waits, the riskier its freedom-of-navigation activities will become.”
And speaking of Syira, if rumors of the PLA's presence at Latakia are true, this could all escalate very, very quickly.
* * *
Here, as a reminder, are the satellite images which demonstrate the extent to which Beijing is "changing the landscape", so to speak, in the South China Sea.