Confrontation looms as two fortresses rise in South China Sea


MANILA: — In just two years, China has poured billions of dollars into reclamation work and military structures on three reefs in the contested Spratlys, implying that it is there to stay.

Recently it warned the United States not to attempt to stop the construction, or “there will be war”. China needs oil badly. Without it, a slowdown of its economic growth may trigger a mammoth recession. It knows there is oil in the Spratlys, otherwise it would not risk billions of dollars and war for the island chain. To extract oil, China needs military security. Without militarisation in a volatile place claimed by other nations, extraction can be disrupted.

A US Poseidon P8 surveillance plane (a “submarine hunter”) recently braved eight warnings from China to report dredging that has reclaimed 800 hectares from the sea at the Fiery Cross Reef, as well as military barracks and piers rising 300 metres from the seabed, and search radars. A commercial plane was also warned by Chinese authorities to move away.

Taiwan Strait choke-point

The United States is so far wary of confronting China over its militarisation of the Spratlys’ reefs, but if China closes the Taiwan Strait, vital shipping lanes will be disrupted and it will be America’s turn to warn “there will be war”. Japan may also be a willing combatant since most of its precious imported oil passes through the Taiwan Strait. Remember that when Egypt tried to close the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane, the United States and Britain were quick to move in.

What would make China close the Taiwan Strait? For one, regaining Taiwan is a continuing obsession for Beijing. But even if that is too risky to go to war over, if there is a military confrontation within a 1,000-kilometre radius, which includes the Spratlys, closing the Taiwan Strait choke-point would shield the Chinese mainland from attackers. It would take 24 hours for China to close the strait, simply by laying thousands of mines.


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