Some countries expand their size by taking over neighboring territory. But in the South China Sea, China is simply making new land. A little background first, for a complicated story. The civilizations surrounding the South China Sea are old indeed, and the islands found within it have been claimed all or in part by several nations over hundreds of years. Besides China, the claimants to the Spratly and Paracel Island groups include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and even tiny Brunei. In addition to the actual islands, there are various rocks, shoals, and reefs that don’t break the surface, but come close. The islands are physically closer to the other nations by hundreds of miles, but China insists that it has sovereignty over all the islands. The others don’t make all-inclusive claims, but Vietnam, for instance, says it has ruled the Paracels and Spratlys since the 1600s and that China is a johnny-come-lately with its claims not appearing til the 1940s. China, of course, is adamant that their southernmost province of Hainan has included the islands for hundreds of years. The disputes over these islands, which are thought to have the possibility of some usable natural resources, have gotten more heated in recent decades. China and Vietnam actually came to military blows in the 1970s and ’80s, and dozens of Vietnamese sailors were killed as China took over the Paracels. Similar numbers were killed over the Spratlys, but China only controls a portion of that group. Other more verbal clashes and tensions over the islands continue to roil international relations.
The latest of these is China’s recent bold move to create new land on top of reefs in the Spratlys in an area claimed by the Philippines. This continues an activity the Chinese have been engaged in for some time, but with further twists. In creating an island where there was none before, China is also declaring control over a 12-mile radius of sea around it. The action is confrontational in a couple of ways. First, the rest of the world considers those waters to be international waters, as the United Nations Convention on the of Law of the Sea says the 12-mile rule doesn’t apply to artificially constructed islands. In addition, the Chinese construction doesn’t look like the beginnings of new resorts — or the bases for environmental study and other civilian operations that they claim. On more than one, they have laid out airstrips, one long enough to accomodate large military aircraft. China professes they have no military plans for the islands, but many are skeptical. Amongst the doubters is the United States. President Obama has recently reiterated a longstanding assertion that the U.S. can and will sail anywhere in the world that international waters exist. The consensus in the Obama administration and amongst some in the military is that FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) should be held within 12 miles of the new islands to demonstrate intent to uphold international rights and warn China not to think of militarizing the artificial fill. As of late October 2015, the U.S. had conducted at least one such operation, sending a destroyer accompanied by Navy jets within 12 miles of some of the Spratlys in order to demonstrate legal right to the sea and airspace there. China predictably protested, but more FONOPS are planned. As this game of assertion, bluff, and bluster goes on, China could claim the U.S. is the one showing aggression by sending military vessels near its locations, and then use that as an excuse to arm those places. Adding even more complication, the U.S. has treaty obligations to protect the Philippines, should that island nation get into a military dispute with China.
China has already warned away U.S. Navy jets flying over some of its island-building projects, and frequently sails its military craft around the fishing vessels of other nations in the area, causing intimidation. Is China looking to establish a base of strength to put some muscle behind its statutory claims of sovereignty and so expand its sphere of influence? How far will the U.S. go to prevent Chinese domination of an important international shipping zone? Two-thirds of Australia’s merchandise commerce flows through the South China Sea, as does a significant portion of America’s. International trade rests on unhindered passage. This test of wills continues a long history of friction in the area, but the heft of the players and the stakes of the game have risen to new heights.