China’s construction of new islands in the South China Sea has attracted a great deal of entirely predictable criticism and controversy. Surely no-one connected with this decision can be surprised at this outcome. One assumes that China’s military planners run just the same sorts of simulations and contingency exercises as their counterparts in the West.
Whoever signed off on the reclamation activities that have caused such consternation in the U.S. and South-East Asia must have known what they were getting themselves into.
This raises a number of important questions. First, who authorised a process that could ultimately lead China into further diplomatic – possibly even military – conflict? Given the possible gravity of the consequences it is difficult to imagine that such actions could have been taken without the direct approval of Xi Jinping. Xi is now routinely referred to as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao. No one is going to initiate such a high-profile, symbolically freighted policy without authorization from the very top.
The second question to ask is whether this decision was taken in the full knowledge that it was bound to be badly received – especially in the short term. If so, has the judgement been made that the fuss will eventually die down but the facts on the ground – or in this case, the water – will transform the material basis of the region’s competing territorial claims to China’s enduring long-term advantage?