Why has China just built seven artificial islands in the strategically sensitive and economically critical South China Sea, alarming its neighbors and risking confrontation with the United States?
Because Beijing believes it can get away with the nervy move and bolster an old desire for regional dominance.
“China has wanted to do this for a long time,” says Zhang Jie, head of the Asia Pacific Security program at the government-linked Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Now it has the dredging boats, the money and the people. So it is doing it.”
At the US Naval War College, strategist Peter Dutton has reached the same conclusion. “As China’s interests and horizons expand, so will its impulse to exert physical control,” in its region he predicts.
But the secretive and determined methods Beijing is using to turn rocks and atolls into potential military bases, and its bland dismissal of other nations’ claims to those specks of island turf, is causing worry beyond just the Pacific rim.
Indeed, as the world wonders what kind of great power China is becoming – and how it will behave -- Beijing may have gone too far.
China now appears to have altered a long-professed policy of "peaceful rise" and shown another face in the Pacific, and in so doing has driven a number of Pacific nations towards an American embrace.
China’s activities in the South China Sea have sparked “doubts about its intentions,” worries Hong Nong, an analyst at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies. As China focused on building its economy and infrastructure it talked to neighbors about peace. Now, Ms. Hong says, “People's perceptions have changed. China needs to do more to persuade the world that it still adheres to its ‘peaceful rise’ policy.”
Beijing tentatively turned in that direction in June, announcing that it had nearly finished its land reclamation drive. Whether that had anything to do with Washington’s repeated demands for a halt to the work is a matter of debate among Chinese analysts, but the government here has not said it would halt construction on the new islands, nor has it pledged not to militarize them.
“This is a conciliatory signal without any substantive policy change,” says Zhang Feng, an Asian affairs specialist at Australian National University in Canberra.
“They are stopping for a moment to assess the diplomatic costs and to decide where to go from here,” adds Avery Goldstein, an expert on Chinese strategy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Beijing likely counts the South China Sea land reclamation project a success: China has strengthened its position in sovereignty disputes with its neighbors in Southeast Asia and it has projected its power into the heart of a waterway that sees five trillion dollars worth of trade each year.
“It is a very interesting advance,” says Zhu Feng, who heads the new Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. Crucially, he adds, it has made the sea “the centerpiece of a rebalance of power between the US and China.”
Caught in the middle of this big power maneuvering are a clutch of Southeast Asian nations that nurse territorial claims to rival China’s. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei sell most of their exports to China, and China is a growing source of investment for them.
But Beijing’s recent moves have frightened their governments who are looking to Washington for regional balance.
Not long ago, for example, the United States announced it would sell naval patrol boats to its old enemy Vietnam, which is locked in a number of territorial disputes with China. On July 7, the Chairman of the Vietnamese Communist Party visited US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
As things stand, small Southeast Asian nations can now be friendly with both China and the US. That would change if the South China Sea were to be overrun by Beijing, says Prof. Dutton. At stake, he warns, “is the open international system.” Washington today “is not attempting to stop China’s advance” but nor will it retreat, he says.
“We have to find ways to preserve both our interests and reach a strategic balance,” Dutton argues.
Will the Chinese play ball?
Zhu Feng thinks it would be “unwise” for Beijing to take military advantage of its new islands. Instead China should make good on its promises that all the civilian facilities it builds will be open to all.
“More muscle, more trouble,” he says bluntly.
WHAT HAS CHINA DONE?
In a blitz lasting more than a year, Chinese engineers using dredgers have turned seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys into artificial islands. Some are large enough to support garrisons, land fighter jets or to dock large naval vessels.
Satellite images show cement factories and multi-story buildings being constructed and identifiable state- owned enterprises racing to make the new islands habitable.
Beijing insists that they will be used mainly for civilian purposes: Support the Chinese fishing fleet, carry out meteorological studies, promote environmental protection, and strengthen search and rescue teams.
But that may not be all. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the outposts would also help China “better safeguard national territorial sovereignty” and serve “military defense” purposes.
WHAT DOES CHINA WANT?
China claims a whopping 90 percent chunk of the South China Sea. Its maps draw a “nine dash line” to mark its claims, some of which are nearly 1,000 miles from China but close to the coastlines of nations that ring the line, like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
China’s claim does not stand up under existing international law, as laid down in the United Nations Law of the Sea. Even Chinese maritime legal experts acknowledge this. But Beijing argues that the Law of the Sea is not the only law that should apply.
“Historical rights” should be taken into account, they say. China enjoys such rights because its fishermen have cast their nets in those distant waters for centuries. Noted Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed these seas in the early 15th century.
Those claims give China “indisputable sovereignty” over the land features and waters inside the line, Beijing insisted in a document presented to the UN in 2009.
That sovereignty is, in fact, disputed. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei all claim some or all of the rocks, atolls, reefs, islands, and water that China says belong to it.
“To some extent, Chinese maritime claims are ambiguous,” says Zheng Zhihua, who heads the Institute for Maritime Law and History in Shanghai. He says the nature of “historic rights” is unclear.
The whole idea of “historic rights” giving China jurisdiction, for example, over waters that lie within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone according to the Law of the Sea, does not wash with the United States, nor with China’s neighbors or with rival territorial claimants.
The Philippines has taken China to an international court at The Hague to challenge the legitimacy of the “nine dash line,” though Beijing has said it does not recognize the tribunal’s right to rule on the matter.
Which claimants have which rights in which waters depends on who has sovereignty over which land features.
That is a matter for the International Court of Justice if negotiations among the parties cannot resolve the disputes. But China has never been ready to confide a decision on its sovereignty to a third party.
What Beijing evidently hopes is that its recent land reclamation drive has changed the facts on the ground – or in the sea – strengthening China’s control of the specks of land that it has reinforced.
But it has made no difference to China’s legal case for maritime jurisdiction. “Reclaiming land does not change the legal status of a feature,” explains Hong Nong.
Or, as US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel put it to a Senate committee last May, “No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty.”
WILL CHINA PAY A PRICE?
Legally, island building may make no difference. “But from a strategic point of view, it will have a great influence,” says Dr. Zheng, the lawyer.
China’s seven new islands will change “the dynamics between China and the other claimants,” Dutton says, “by enhancing China’s ability to project its power in the region, far from its shores. China has laid the groundwork to move its land power South … expanding the area of competition with the United States.”
Though Chinese officials stress the civilian uses for the islands, military analysts point to their potential military significance.
These include helicopter bases for anti-submarine operations, aircraft refueling facilities, naval harbors and radar and missile installations that could one day help China’s air force impose an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China sea, as it has tried to do over the East China Sea in its dispute over island ownership with Japan.
Those prospects worry both the United States and regional powers. The Japanese government has talked of running joint naval patrols in the South China Sea with the Philippines Navy, and in June a Japanese P-3C Orion spy plane flew two joint missions with a Philippines aircraft near disputed waters, prompting a Chinese protest.
Australia is considering sailing the sort of Freedom of Navigation patrols that the US navy runs regularly through the South China Sea to challenge any Chinese sovereignty claims it considers excessive. Even India has voiced concerns over possible threats to free navigation on major trade routes, including in the Indian Ocean.
“The Chinese are acting as if they are stronger than they are,” suggests Prof. Goldstein. “They are antagonizing people and risking the creation of an encircling alliance” against Beijing.
That would be especially awkward, points out Dr. Zhang of the Academy of Social Sciences, since President Xi Jinping of China has emphasized closer trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia. That emphasis, called “One Belt, One Road,” is a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
“China’s strategies on the South China Sea and on “One Belt, One Road” are in conflict,” worries Zhang. “Many scholars are wondering how we can push the belt and road while the South China Sea situation is so tense, and saying that the South China Sea is not a core interest.
“But the government has not yet made up its mind about that,” she adds.