Not gone and not forgotten, China is ready to solidify its claim to the South China Sea (SCS). Recent satellite imagery confirms China is conducting significant land reclamation operations in the Spratly Islands in the SCS. The SCS is an important fishing ground and is believed to hold large amounts of oil and gas. Undermining the United States’ influence in the region, China intends to play the shepherd in one of the world’s busiest trade routes.
The Spratly Islands along with the Paracel Islands and several maritime boundaries in the SCS have been hotly disputed for several centuries. The conflict includes Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam and has predominantly centered on historical and cultural claims. Though offering very little in the way of land or resources, the islands serve as a tangible marker. As such, parties to the conflict have been quick to occupy them.
China’s most recent undertaking in the Spratly island chain is not their first – the last 18 months have already seen three reclamation projects. However, at more than 3,000 meters and counting Fiery Cross Reef is their grandest venture yet and appears destined to house an airstrip and harbor, both capable of supporting military hardware. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam already operate airstrips in the Spratlys, but can only support smaller, prop-based aircraft.
As it pursues expansion, China has been hesitant to engage in multilateral negotiations and meaningful dialogue on the SCS was relegated to the sidelines at the recent APEC and ASEAN summits. Instead, China – demanding an in-house solution to the convoluted matter – is content to flex its superior political and military might to limited opposition. Reluctant to step on any toes and with its feet in multiple courts, the United States is short on political recourse, and that’s how China likes it.
Though China’s aims are long-term, control of the Spratlies and Paracels is not subsidiary to any prize that may lie beneath. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Asian security concept” calls for Asian solutions to Asian problems and seeks to limit Western influence in such “domestic” affairs. Unchecked dominance in the SCS, whether through direct force or intimidation, would be a remarkable victory in this regard.
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