China’s aggressive project to build small islands in the South China Sea has seized the attention of the White House and US policymakers. But China's creation of small military installations, including a 10,000- ft. landing strip, on various tiny atolls in the Western Spratly Islands and elsewhere is hitting Pacific nations at a more visceral level, bringing anxiety over security.
To be sure, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, along with Indonesia, have long had their own competing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But those suddenly seem less worrying as China pushes a claim over hundreds of mostly uninhabited small islands, reefs, and rocks in the 1.4-million square mile South China Sea.
Now, feeling pushed around and pushed together, these nations are exploring diplomacy with the US, new defense options, and even international legal recourse to stop China from extending its sphere of influence just off their shores.
Today, officials in Manila announced a 25 percent increase in military spending over 13 years aimed, they say, at bolstering naval defenses and countering China's claims.
China is causing a “big and imminent threat to security” in Southeast Asia, says Chito Santa Romana, of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies in Manila. “The rise of China’s economic power has given rise to its military power."
The cow's tongue
China's land reclamation efforts have taken place in an area that, according to Manila, constitutes nearly 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone, a 200-mile radius that extends from national territory under the UN Law of the Sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry says it controls the territory within a U-shaped maritime boundary, known as the 9-dash line and also referred to as “the cow’s tongue,” since the line appears in a large curvature far below the mainland.
The Chinese mainland lies nearly 1,000 miles away from its most distant claims [see map]. Beijing’s full claim over the sea would give it control of shipping routes touching half of all global trade through the region. Earlier this summer China said it would stop expanding the number of islands it is reclaiming but would continue to build in places where it has started work.
As part of its response, the Philippines is fighting back in court. A case at The Hague argued on July 13 sought to have an international court rule on the legality of China’s territorial claim. (China refused to participate). That case is causing a stir here and in Vietnam, off whose shores China parked an oil rig last year, bringing clashes at sea and at home between ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese.
The Hague tribunal admittedly has no enforcement mechanism and Beijing has signaled it has no plans to uphold an international ruling. But the hearings may provide the Philippines additional arguments in future negotiations, according to Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the Institute of Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
A decision on whether the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration has jurisdiction to rule comes this fall.
Philippines and Vietnam look to the US
Chinese naval forces have already denied the Philippines access to explore oil and gas deposits and have harassed Philippine fishing fleets from places like the Scarborough Shoals, which sit about 100 miles off Philippine shores.
No actual shots have been fired between Beijing and Manila in the mid-ocean standoff. But the Chinese Coast Guard occasionally blasts Filipino fishermen with water cannons after they sail too close to the tiny island outposts.
“An accident could spiral out of control, or a misunderstanding” could result with a military clash, Mr. Romana says.
Even as it pursues legal recourse, the Philippines is also bolstering its military presence.
In addition to boosting defense funding, Manila is preparing to reopen a former American naval base in Subic Bay where it will station new fighter jets purchased from South Korea. Repairs are also being made to a rusting World War II-era cargo ship now beached in the Spratlys that serves as the country’s most western military outpost.
The Philippine military is limited compared with China’s. But under a decades-old mutual defense pact, the US is obliged to aid its former colony if it is attacked. Yet how far Washington will take action in the sea is unclear.
Analysts describe both lingering doubt and unwarranted expectations in Manila. Filipinos have a tendency to place “excessive or misplaced expectations in America’s commitment to protect the Philippines,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, author of "Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," in an e-mail.
Vietnam is also looking for similar assistance to confront China on the high seas.
Earlier this month, Hanoi’s Communist Party Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong, who met with President Obama in the Oval Office, told a forum in Washington that his country plans to expand military partnerships with the US. The Pentagon said it will provide Vietnam with $18 million to purchase coast guard vessels.
Analysts like Romana believe that increased international attention on China’s activities has slowed down its military buildup.
“When under strong international pressure, China tends to adjust its strategy,” he says.
In recent days China has adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying it will build fishing havens, weather stations, and light houses on the islands, though the Philippines and its Southeast Asian neighbors are dubious.