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Issue No.: 577 | July 2015

“Manufactured Sovereignty” in South China Sea: Sino-American Confrontation Heats Up

B. Ramesh Babu
Will the US and her allies around the world act in time and on the scale needed to curb the dragon is the most urgent question confronting the world today.

China created a 2000 acre island in the disputed Spratly Islands. It was an audacious reclamation operation of dredging sand on a gigantic scale to ‘manufacture’ an artificial island located in what is aptly called Mischief Reef. Reclaiming land from the sea is not necessarily a violation of international law when it is done within the territorial limits of a country. Nariman Point, off South Bombay, is a vast land mass reclaimed from the Arabian Sea housing offices, skyscrapers, theatres and posh apartments. But, the massive engineering marvel China has built is in the midst of an archipelago with a long legacy of territorial and jurisdictional disputes among several countries in the Asia-Pacific region. These have been dormant till recently. Overlapping claims of at least five other countries, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, and Taiwan, make this part of the South China Sea a hotbed of seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. Aggressive expansionism of China in recent decades and the latest frenzy of massive dredging operations and the creation of a ‘manufactured island’ are upsetting the postwar balance of power in Asia-Pacific along unpredictable lines.

Before going further, it is relevant to add that China is not alone in reclaiming land from the seas in the region. Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have undertaken similar reclamation and military construction efforts in their claim areas in the Spratly Islands. For example, in 2008, Taiwan announced the completion of a new 3,900-feet airstrip in Itu Aba Island that could support military aircraft. To prove it, the President of the country landed a C-130 transport plane on the island the same year. Vietnam has been expanding its holdings on Sandy Cay and West London Reef, just seven miles east of Itu Aba Island. In 2014, Philippines announced an allocation of $11 million to upgrade the 4,200 feet runway and navy port facilities in the Spratly Islands.

It is pertinent at this stage to briefly refer to the diplomatic background to the activisation of the long dormant disputes over the overlapping claims of nations in the region. After blatantly announcing its sovereignty over the South China Sea, China began to press each of her neighbours in South East Asia to settle their jurisdictional disputes bilaterally. The idea was to forestall the ASEAN nations from ganging up against her. Sensing the dangers inherent in China’s tactics and the dragon’s expanded militarization activities in the disputed seas and islands, all the ASEAN countries including China signed a non-binding agreement in 2002 "to exercise restraint and refrain from occupying any features that were uninhabited.” Subsequently, there was relative quiet on this front for some time. However, soon after President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2009, the dredging operations in Mischief Reef and elsewhere in the Spratly Islands were scaled massively. By 2011 the Chinese intentions and designs to create an artificial strategic staging point in the South China Sea with docking facilities for its navy and build airstrips for its air force became obvious. At this stage the ASEAN nations including China adopted a unanimous resolution on a Common Code of Conduct (COD) on the territorial and jurisdictional disputes. But, China defied it even before the ink was dry.

China’s aggressive rise and its determined bid to control nearby seas, the preposterous "mine dash claim line” enveloping 90 per cent of the South China Sea, and the raking up of the long dormant territorial and jurisdictional disputes with all her neighbours in South East and East Asia rang alarm bells in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Japan responded by disavowing the post-war constitutional shackles of self-defence imposed on her. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s "patriotic” and popular leadership, the country began to adopt a "proactive” role in the region. Japan empowered itself to deploy its armed forces in Asia-Pacific to counter China. After the Second World War the US handed over the Senkaku islands to Japan. China calls them Diaoyu islands and accused Japan of "stealing her islands.” China claims sovereignty over all territories, islands, adjoining seas which were within the ambit of China’s Emperors at any time in the past! Naturally, this preposterous claim is angrily rejected by all her neighbours, including India, Russia, Mongolia, and Tibet. The tug of war over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is a part of the much larger battle over the shifting power balance in Asia.

Under Prime Minister Abe’s brave policy dubbed as "proactive pacifism,” Japan’s strong and powerful Maritime Self Defence Force (MSDF) chases away the Chinese aircraft intruding over the islands on a daily basis. In April 2015, US-Japan defence alliance was renewed for ten years during Prime Minister Abe’s State visit to the US. After signing the Treaty, President Obama declared that the US-Japan defence treaty is no threat to China. In fact, he insisted that China benefits immensely from American presence in the region. He made it a point to add that China was "bullying” smaller nations to accept its sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In 2013, China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over much of the South China Sea including the islands controlled by Japan. As per the declaration all airplanes (military or commercial) flying over the zone should identify themselves to the Chinese authorities in advance. Japan is an alliance partner of the US and the Americans responded by flying two B-52 bombers through the zone in defiance. China opted to be prudent and not escalate it into an active conflict with the US, a far superior military power.

The Showdown Heats Up

As the ‘manufactured’ island gets ready to equip itself with docking bays for the navy, airstrips for military jets, lighthouse towers, and other strategic facilities, China upped its stridency. On 31 May 2015, China’s top diplomat declared that if the dredging is obstructed or the island is endangered in any way "there will be war.” He was addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore, which is an annual gathering of security officials of all major countries in Asia. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that her country’s claims over the South China Sea were "unshakeable.” It must be added that the recent surge of land reclamation in the atolls of Spratly Islands is 1000 miles from China’s southern most point (in Hanian Island) and just off the coast of Philippines, which has claims of its own in the region. Moreover, the country is also a treaty ally of the US.

In the third week of May 2015, American P-8A Poseidon aircraft flew near the Chinese construction site in Mischief Reef. The Chinese navy told the plane to leave eight times. Each time the American pilot responded by asserting that the aircraft was flying over "international air space.” Chinese termed the flight a "potential threat to the security of the Chinese island and reef.” Similar threats were issued to the Philippines aircraft. A few days later (26 May 2015), China issued a policy document outlining the country’s future strategy. The Chinese navy would expand its focus from "off shore waters defence” to a greater emphasis on "open seas protection.” Chinese Air Force would shift its focus from "territorial air defence to both defence and offence,” the statement declared. Patrick Cronin, Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, called the policy statement "a blueprint for achieving slow motion regional hegemony.” The policy document "asserts a confidence backed by growing capability on land and increasingly at sea,” he added. As an integral part of the long-term strategy of emerging as a global superpower capable of challenging America’s global hegemony, China recently ended its policy of maintaining minimal nuclear force. The country has reengineered many of its long-range missiles to carry multiple warheads. Such a technology making the missiles more potent and capable of penetrating through the enemy’s anti-missile defence shield called multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) was launched by President Xi around the same time as building the airfields and submarine docking facilities in the disputed Spratly Islands. China declined to discuss the issue of MIRVs with the US. The Chinese were always fearful of America’s nuclear advantage, estimated to be 8:1 at the present. The latest strategic shift is "obviously part of an effort to prepare for long-term competition with the United States,” according to Ashley J. Telis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC. Telis served as a senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration.

The US Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that China’s rapidly expanding building projects in the South China Sea have raised tensions and caused concerns among the US and its regional partners. Carter was speaking at a stop-over at a Vietnamese naval base in the wake of reports that China had placed two militarized artillery vehicles on one of the reclamation sites. He urged all nations to halt their reclamation efforts.

When last reports came in (3 June 2015), the US has decided to send a contingent of ships into the international waters close to the dredged and reclaimed islands. China termed such measures harsh and American criticism as "a military threat” and pointedly asked, "Do these measures help to resolve the dispute in the South China Sea and maintain peace and stability?”

On the American side security experts are convinced that "such measures” will not halt the Chinese operations. At the most they will send a strong signal to the Chinese leadership and reassure American allies regarding the nation’s commitment to peace, security, and freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is clear that the Dragon and the Eagle are at loggerheads and America’s allies in the region are acutely concerned over the aggressive rise of China. It is interesting to watch out for India’s response to the growing threat of protracted confrontation between China and the US in Asia-Pacific. "Pivot Asia” and the Chinese expansionism in the region and beyond are at loggerheads. As the Japanese security official at the Shangri-La Dialogue remarked: "If we leave any unlawful situation unattended, order will soon turn to disorder and peace and stability will collapse.” Even as China continues to repeat its shrill claims over Arunachal Pradesh, in recent months President Xi has responded positively on the economic cooperation front, two-way trade expansion, large scale investments on both sides, trilateral cooperation among China, India and Sri Lanka in the island nation, and invited India to join her and Russia in a trilateral partnership against the global hegemony of the US. Do we see a signal of sorts seeking peace and stability on the Himalayan front, even as China focuses on expansion in the South China Sea and East Asia? Is China seeking a period of quiet on the Tibetan front and restive Xinxiang province on the west adjacent to the Muslim republics of Central Asia? Should we stay aside as the dragon swings its claws in South China Sea and East Asia! I will not trust the dragon even for a moment. China has a long legacy of blowing hot and cold on the Himalayan frontier. Watching the Dragon is not enough. Containing it with counter-force is called for. Will the US and her allies around the world act in time and on the scale needed to curb the dragon is the most urgent question confronting the world today.

There is a key Chinese internal equation to all this at this juncture. President Xi has launched a new initiative to focus on domestic development and smooth rise of China. How this plays out in the next few years will determine China’s future course of action in the South China Sea. He will bide his time before he takes on the US. If the experiment succeeds he may be emboldened to challenge American hegemony. If he fails at home, he may indulge in a foreign adventure to mobilise patriotic support for the regime. Either way the next few years will see a more active confrontation between the old Super Power on the retreat and the aspiring global Super Power in the wings!

DR. B. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, 
American Politics and Foreign Policy. 
He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, 20132014 and 
Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad. 
Formerly, he was Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. 




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Facts and Rumours

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Life and Death

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Questions Needing Answers

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Foreign Relations in the 21st Century

“Manufactured Sovereignty” in South China Sea: Sino-American Confrontation Heats Up

B. Ramesh Babu

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