When the US aircraft carrier, Carl Vincent, recently made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of US military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, cannot obscure the fact that the United States, under two successive presidents, has had no coherent strategy for the South China Sea.
It was on President Barack Obama’s watch that China created and militarised seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, while his successor, Donald Trump, still does not seem to have that critical sub-region on his radar.It was just five years ago that China began pushing its borders far out into international waters by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. After having militarised these outposts, it has now presented a fait accompli to the rest of the world — without incurring any international costs.
These developments carry far-reaching strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific region and for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.
The Indo-Pacific is so interconnected that adverse developments in any of its sub-regions impinge on wider maritime security. For example, it was always known that if China had its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This is precisely what is happening now. An emboldened China has also claimed to be a “near-Arctic state” and unveiled plans for a “polar Silk Road”.
In fact, with the US distracted as ever, China’s land-reclamation frenzy in the South China Sea still persists. China is now using a super-dredger, dubbed as a “magical island-building machine”.