Chinese sea reef

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

Tensions in the South China Sea
| published May 30, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

The cobalt blue and emerald green waters which separate China from its neighbors—the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and even the southernmost islands of Japan—may look placid and idyllic with their scattered, tiny islands and salt white beaches, but those waters also represent one of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Indeed, some military and foreign policy analysts of China’s continuing campaign of assertion and muscle building in the South China Sea worry that rising tensions could trigger a shooting war, one which has the potential to drag the United States into a conflict—limited or otherwise—with the People’s Republic of China.

Uneasiness already exists between ostensible allies South Korea and Japan, just as some minor disputes between The Philippines and Malaysia remain generally unresolved. But what all these countries have in common is a general sense that their largest neighbor, China, is engaged in a wider territorial campaign designed to assert its effective control over a wide swath of ocean, sea lanes, islands and reefs.

The claims and counter-claims can get complicated, and some of the gripes date back generations, but the short version of the story—and the most troubling part of the story for the United States—involves China’s recent assertions of territorial control and regional hegemony over tiny islands and reefs now being systematically converted into larger islands and permanent military outposts. In some cases, China is engaged in elaborate construction projects designed to reclaim the sea and the busy sea lanes by filling reefs—now part of international waters—with filler, concrete and steel.

These massive ocean pedestals will eventually be the start of manmade islands upon which the Chinese will construct high tech listening posts, radio towers, radar stations, communications and satellite relay equipment, and even barracks for military garrisons. China has already constructed similar such stations on other tiny islands and reefs throughout the South China Sea in waters claimed by the Philippines and by Vietnam. Chinese companies are also engaged in aggressive oil drilling and oil exploration programs, and some of that drilling is taking place using massive oil rigs which can be easily relocated—often under the protection of heavily armed Chinese naval ships.

Intelligence analysts in the United States and several other countries have been studying satellite imagery of the South China Sea, and the evidence shows that China has substantially stepped up its construction efforts in some areas, notably in the disputed Spratly Islands. Experts believe that China is in the early stages of building an island large enough to support a military garrison, multiple helicopter landing pads, and an airfield long enough to allow for the takeoff and landing of fighter planes. Based on satellite imagery, there is also recent evidence that the Chinese military is installing long range artillery guns on at least two of the artificial islands, raising concerns that China intends to use the bases as a tool for absolute control over sea lanes in the region.

The United States, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have complained to the United Nations that such forms of island building are a violation of what are considered international waters—at the least—if not an outright territorial grab of the waters which belong to other countries. But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken takes it one step further, calling China’s actions in the South China Sea the work of an aggressor.

“As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries,” Blinken said while in Jakarta last week, “it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence. Its behavior threatens to set a new precedent whereby larger countries are free to intimidate smaller ones.”

China has responded by calling the U.S. position “groundless.” China has also countered with its own concerns over U.S. interference in the issue, asserting that it is China—not the United States—which is the appropriate watchdog of affairs among Asian nations. Chinese officials say that the U.S. is attempting to foster discord in the region.

China has also complained loudly about U.S. overflights of its construction projects and military installations in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, many tiny islands and reefs remain under the tentative control of Filipino marine and Special Forces units. Despite complaints by Manila to the United Nations and ASEAN over Chinese military activities and oil exploration in the area of the Spratly’s, there has been little official movement on the issue. Recent meetings of ASEAN nations produced nothing expect for a Chinese demand that the Spratly Island fracas remain decidedly off the agenda.

But the Philippine military has remained bravely committed to keeping at least some of the Spratlys under Filipino control by posting small but highly trained teams of marines on tiny islands, or aboard deliberately shipwrecked destroyers and cruisers now lodged semi-permanently in the reefs and shallows. Aboard those isolated ships the specially trained Filipinos keep a watchful eye on the Chinese ships and boats which sometimes patrol only a few hundred yards from the shipwrecks and reefs. The Filipinos have automatic weapons, side arms and heavy guns on the rusted ships. The elite Chinese naval forces have the same, and more. Some military analysts, and much of the top brass at the Pentagon, worry mightily about the implications of that much firepower in the hands of well-motivated antagonists deep at sea in waters shallow enough in places for chest-deep wading.

Why the high stakes? Deep underneath, billions of barrels of oil remain untapped. China, hungry for energy, wants access to those oil deposits, and it considers those waters part of it territory. Ironically, that territorial dispute predates the discovery of oil under those waters, and the current fracas—based as it is on lines drawn after World War II—seems an archaic throwback to another time and place. Since 1947 China has claimed much of the South China Sea as its own, part of a larger set of map revisions and a scribbled set of boundaries drawn by Zhou Enlai. The boundary is known as The Nine Dashes Line.

Here’s the short version. At the height of Imperial Japan’s reach during World War II, all the areas in question were controlled by Japanese military forces. After Japan’s surrender, and based on agreements and treaties signed in Cairo and at Potsdam, the Republic of China (as it was then called) re-claimed its authority over the Paracel Islands, the Pratas, and some of the Spratlys. The Kuomintang government published maps and atlases which showed these areas as part of China. Later, after revolution reshaped China into the People’s Republic of China, the top brass in Beijing co-opted the same claims to the same islands. The new communist authorities in Beijing simply ignored Taiwan (then the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek) and steamrolled over its claims to any of the islands. Many western powers chose to ignore or shrug-off the controversy, and with the eras of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the U.S. and its allies had bigger fish to fry, and the vaguely defined line went unchallenged. Thus that dashed line hand-drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947 still affects the world to this day.

China has recently reasserted its controversial territorial claims to almost all of the South China Sea, including shipping, tourism, and commercial activities. China also says it has authority of any military activities, by any of the neighboring countries. China calls the wide reach of its radar stations, its airfields and its island military garrisons an “Air Defense Identification Zone,” essentially a high tech net designed to track all movements by sea or air through the region.

Oil and tourism have combined to make a mildly sore point—especially between China and its two closest sea neighbors, the Philippines and Vietnam—into a bitterly contested issue and a potential flashpoint. China has been openly and aggressively developing its oil drilling program in the Paracel Islands and the waters near Vietnam, leading to protests, mass demonstrations, and even violent riots in Hanoi. Brunei and Malaysia—two nations with economies linked heavily to energy and oil—have also expressed worries about China’s insistence that it has, in effect, unlimited access to the waters.

Japan also worries about China’s reef-building program. China has been on a large scale military buildup for more than 20 years, and in Japan there are worries that China may be seeking to bully and intimidate its neighbors into becoming junior partners in the economic and military balance of the region. Japan has become worried enough about China’s reclamation efforts—especially those geared toward air bases, surveillance systems, radar stations and military garrisons—that it has agreed to participate in a variety of joint military exercises with the United States, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Not to be outdone, China has now complained about Japan’s participation in U.S.-led military exercises.

Japanese military officials have said publicly that the joint exercises are not in response to China’s growing assertions in the region, and that the training missions are merely a reflection of a need for better cooperation and communication between its allies. But most observers say that in reality, Japan’s participation is crafted to send a clear message to China that it will not be bullied by its massive neighbor to the west.

So far, according to western military and intelligence analysts, China has established seven bases atop what were recently reefs, shoals or spatters of tiny islands. Satellite images show heavy construction on at least two additional locations, and if China’s military ship movements in the Spratlys and the Paracels are any indication, it intends to eventually build more such made-made islands.

In a recent statement, Chinese government officials characterized their country’s commitment to China’s claim of territorial authority over the South China Sea as “hard as a rock,” a perhaps deliberately vivid description considering that some of the islands in question are little more than a few hundred square feet of wave-splashed stone jutting from the sea. China has also implied that it may be forced to eventually respond to those flyovers by U.S. surveillance planes, despite the American position that it has as much right to fly over those international waters as any other country. On at least six occasions in 2014, Chinese fighter jets harassed or otherwise engaged in “dangerously close contact” with U.S. surveillance planes or transports.

But around the South China Sea, tensions continue to rise as they have been for nearly two years (see previous Thursday Review articles on this topic in the links below), and there are plenty of observers in the Pentagon who believe that it is only a matter of time before shooting breaks out between Asians seeking to protect, or gain control of, reefs, shoals, and islands barely larger than a double-decker bus.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Troubles in the South China Sea; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 23, 2014.