China has astounded the world with the speed and scale of its creation of artificial islands and military infrastructure in the South China Sea.
The first Chinese dredger initiated land reclamation in December 2013. Five years later, China has completed building its manmade islands and is now steadily ramping up its military assets in the South China Sea.
Even after an international arbitral tribunal invalidated its claims in the South China Sea through a ruling in 2016, China continued with the frenzied expansion of its frontiers. Yet, it has incurred no international costs for pushing its borders far out into international waters.
Today, China has consolidated its hold in a strategically crucial body of water through which $5.3 trillion in global trade flows every year. It has set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic-attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields there.
And by turning its manmade islands into military bases, it has virtually established permanent aircraft carriers, whose role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
The South China Sea, in fact, highlights that Beijing’s favoured frontier strategy is pivoted on “salami slicing”. This involves — as witnessed in the Himalayas since the 1950s — a steady progression of small actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which over time lead cumulatively to a strategic transformation in China’s favour.
And by camouflaging offence as defence, China presents a targeted state with a Hobson’s choice: endure the territorial loss or face a dangerous and costly war with a great power.
As other Asian nations are discovering, including India in the Himalayas and Japan in the East China Sea, the China challenge centres on Beijing’s lack of respect for existing frontier lines. China is still working to redraw political boundaries, almost 70 years after communists seized power there and began expanding the frontiers.
China clearly has been emboldened by America’s muted response to its expansionism. The US has focused its concern merely on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on ratcheting up pressure on China to stop its territorial revisionism.