SOUTH CHINA SEA contests between China and the US have led to a rapid and unnerving militarisation of the disputed region as both superpowers aim to stamp their authority – but where exactly are Washington and Beijing in control?
The South China Sea is host to lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation of what China deems to be its territory. The demarcation enforces a claim over all of the island clusters in the region and 90 percent of the South China Sea as a whole, but is deemed illegal by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
This has angered smaller nations in the region such as Vietnam and the Philippines, both of whom are reeling at China’s militarisation of the Spratly Islands – a key archipelago in the region that both countries claim sovereignty over.
The Spratly Islands form the epicentre of the complex disputes, as China occupies seven features, and has heavily militarised its portion of the archipelago.
But Beijing is not alone on the Islands. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan have also staked claims in the Spratly chain, making the region the most complex and contested piece of the South China Sea puzzle.
Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has engulfed the South China Sea with man made island bases, and has been accused of forming them specifically for military purposes.
The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate China’s development of military bases has been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.
But from a numerical perspective, Vietnam actually holds one more feature in the Spratly cain than its relentless rivals: eight to China’s seven.
Following multiple clashes over Chinese encroachment, Vietnam has grown closer to the US for political and military support, accepting patrol ships from Washington with the aim of thwarting Beijing’s aggression.
China and Vietnam have clashed over the Paracel Islands to the north of the Spratly chain.
The Paracel chain sits in the South China Sea roughly equidistant to Vietnam’s east coast and China’s south coast.
Despite an international tribunal ruling that China’s Nine-Dash Line claim of the South China Sea was not valid, Beijing reclaimed 20 reefs in February 2017 – a move that infuriated those in Hanoi.
At the time, reports emerged that China had militarised eight of these reefs, containing helipads, naval ports, an airstrip, hangars and a detachment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries.
While China continues its relentless surge for military dominance, the US has regularly aggravated China by sending colossal warships and aircraft carriers through waters Beijing deems to be its own.
Worse for China’s military, the US has used the Philippines as a platform from which to stake its own claim in the region as Washington tries to aid smaller nations from further encroachment.
In 2016, the US reached an agreement with the Philippines to build five military installations located throughout the country.
The base which infuriated Beijing more than any other was the Antonio Bautista Air Base on western Palawan island, which faces the hotly disputed Spratly islands directly.
Last month, the US sailed its combat ship Gabrielle Giffords within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, located in the Spratly chain.
The regular ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols indicate that while China continues to build its influence, the US aren’t standing down any time soon.