The muted Philippine response has exacerbated existing concerns about the regional response to Beijing’s maritime claims.
In late January, Chinese state media announced the establishment of yet another new facility in a South China Sea feature. Though the unveiling was just another manifestation of an old aspect of Beijing’s broader strategy in advancing its position in the South China Sea, the initially muted response from the Philippines has once again exacerbated concerns about the regional response to such actions taken by China.
As I have noted repeatedly in these pages and elsewhere, while there has been significantly more focus on China’s efforts to assert its interests in the South China Sea in recent years, such attempts in fact date back decades. The idea of China gradually building up its position at the expense of others through a range of measures has been characterized differently over the decades, with one popular description being “creeping assertiveness” that dates back to the 1990s and Beijing’s occupation of Mischief Reef.
The idea of “creeping assertiveness” or other incrementalist characterizations of Beijing’s approach has continued on over the past few years. One aspect has been the construction of facilities – which include not just the military facilities tied to Beijing’s artificial islands, which tend to get much more attention, but also civilian facilities and capabilities as well such as weather stations and search and rescue centers. Though these facilities may appear less threatening and draw less headlines, they are nonetheless worrying for other claimant states given fears that Beijing may use ‘public good’ arguments to advance the proliferation of dual-use facilities that would advance its objectives at the expense of others.
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Fiery Cross Reef has been among the features where these dynamics have clearly been at play. Indeed, China’s occupation of Fiery Cross Reef itself was done under the justification of a UNESCO marine observation station back in 1987, following which China began some construction to consolidate its position there (the feature is contested by other claimants, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan).
The purely civilian, public-good focus of facilities Beijing has constructed on Fiery Cross Reef has also long been in question. Over the past few years, per the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Fiery Cross Reef, which is characterized as one of the “Big Three” Chinese features along with Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, has been equipped with facilities that could be employed for military uses, such as a large runway, hangar space to accommodate multiple combat aircraft, and other radar, sensor, and communications facilities.
Other claimant states no doubt recognize the creeping assertiveness at play, even though their responses have varied. That has been clearest with respect to Vietnam. Dating back to last year, Hanoi has spoken out specifically and repeatedly against the use of weather observatory stations on China’s artificial islands, making clear its opposition and demanding China cease the practice.