NEW DELHI – Without incurring any international cost, China belligerently continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done before. Its modus operandi to extend its frontiers in the South China Sea — a global trade and maritime hub — involves creating artificial islands and claiming sovereignty over them and their surrounding waters.
In just a little over two years, it has built seven islands in its attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which $5.3 trillion in trade flows every year. In fact, about half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the South China Sea.
Beijing may claim to base its expansive claims in the South China Sea on historical records, including a 1947 map made by the Kuomintang, but it was only in 2009 that it lodged with the United Nations its so-called nine-dash line, which pushes up against the coastlines of all the other countries in the region. And it was not until late 2013 that it quietly began turning rock outcrops and reefs into islands to serve as its strategic outposts, including one that now houses a 3,000-meter airstrip for warplanes.
China’s moves in the South China Sea are actually part of its larger strategy to build up maritime influence and secure sea lanes in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing appears to be using the South China Sea as a testing ground for changing the Asia-Pacific geopolitical map. China’s recent acknowledgement that it is establishing its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa, represents a transformative moment in its quest for supremacy at sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, by calling China an important stakeholder in the Arctic, has indicated that it intends to play an active role there too, given that the global-warming-induced thaw of sea ice could, in due course, open up important sea lanes through that region. But China’s current emphasis beyond the South China Sea is on expanding its maritime interests in the adjacent Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
In this endeavor to advance its geostrategic interests, China is assertively using geoeconomic tools, such as the Maritime Silk Road — which seeks to link its eastern coast with the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East — and the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The twin Silk Road initiative has become a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s muscular new foreign policy.
In the South China Sea, the speed and scale of China’s creation of islands and military infrastructure have astounded the world. According to a Pentagon report in August, China in 20 months reclaimed 17 times more land than all the other claimant-states combined over the past four decades. Yet China’s creeping invasion has been met with little international response other than rhetoric.