China extends sway over South China Sea, one island at a time

China says its buildup of islands and reefs in the disputed waters is 'defensive' in nature. US military officials vow to continue flyovers and naval passage. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a hard line on China's claims to virtually all the South China Sea during a press conference Tuesday in Beijing.

First came surface-to-air missile batteries on the tiny Paracel Islands. Then came widely disseminated satellite photos that appear to show powerful Chinese radar facilities a bit further south on the Spratlys.

And those are just the changes in the South China Sea in the past month.

China’s steady buildup has US officials increasingly warning that, if left unchecked, Beijing will gain de facto control over the disputed South China and raise the risk of military conflict. As The New York Times reports, the scale of the multibillion-dollar effort by China has challenged the military status quo that has defined the Western Pacific since the end of World War II.

Tensions between the United States and China ratcheted up Tuesday as both sides reaffirmed their unwillingness to back down. The standoff led a top US general to concede that there was "a possibility of a miscalculation" leading to conflict in the increasingly militarized region, reports The Associated Press.

Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, said Tuesday that the US will continue to fly daily missions over the South China Sea despite China’s new missile batteries. She urged other nations to exercise their freedom to fly and sail in international airspace and waters claimed by China "or risk losing it throughout the region."

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China won't permit other nations to infringe on what it considers its sovereign rights in the strategically vital area. Shipping lanes in the South China Sea account for more than $5 trillion in global trade annually. 

In an apparent reference to the US, Mr. Wang said another nation's claim to freedom of navigation in the region doesn't give it the right to do whatever it wants. The US regularly sends naval ships past artificial islands built by China, most recently last week.

"China cannot be labeled as the most militaristic. This label is more suited to other countries," Wang told reporters Tuesday at a news conference in Beijing, according to the AP.

Tensions have steadily grown since 2014 when China began building islands on top of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. In addition to surface-to-air missiles and radar facilities, the islands are also expected to station Chinese warplanes. The new fortifications pose little threat to the US military, which could easily destroy them in a conflict, but as The New York Times reports: 

While officials in Washington say China is nowhere near gaining the capacity to keep American forces out of the South China Sea, analysts say the buildup will make it more difficult for the United States Navy to quickly defend allies with weaker militaries, like the Philippines. The deployment of fighter jets, antiship missiles and more powerful radar in particular could embolden the Chinese Navy while giving American commanders pause, they said.

Wang defended the buildup as defensive in nature. But neighboring countries have raised concerns over China’s tightening grip on the disputed waters. In a rare public comment on the issue, Taiwan's defense ministry warned Wednesday of the increase in regional defense spending, reports Reuters. 

"Neighboring countries have increased their military budgets and weapons procurement and are adjusting some of their military deployments and conducting joint drills at sea," Taiwan Defense Minister Kao Kuang-chi told Taiwan's legislature today. 

In addition to Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea.

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