South China Sea: China changes the international order (and geography)

China’s ‘artificial Islands’ in South China Sea
By Amrita Jash

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China’s steadfast construction of artificial islands on a series of disputed reefs in the South China Sea (SCS) has raised the concerns of a fresh “China threat” in the Asia Pacific – causing a new kind of security dilemma. With such a revisionist activity, China seems to concretize one of the vital Sea Lanes of Communications (SLCOs), giving a new form to China’s assertive behavior.

Such an activity is motivated by China’s curious case of overlapped sovereignty. Wherein, it claims the disputed sea with reference to a “nine-dashed line” – claiming almost the entirety of the South China Sea, leaving no space for the others to exist.

With the on going infrastructure buildup since mid-2014, China has been constructing new installations such as ports, fuel storage depots, air strips, barracks and radar sites – thereby, extending the range of its navy, air force, coast guards and fishing fleets.

 A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam. The US says it is concerned at China’s aggressive exertion of sovereignty in the sea.
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam. The US says it is concerned at China’s aggressive exertion of sovereignty in the sea. Photograph: Reuters/Reuters

In validating its actions on a contested territory, China responded by rejecting the protests staged by Manila and Hanoi as well as United States criticism of reclamation, by justifying its activity to fall “within the scope of China’s sovereignty”. This Chinese behavior is representative of the fact that China does not want to conform to the international order presided by the Westphalian norms but rather seeks to change the rules of the order by its “Chinese Characteristics”.

In this context, China’s such ambitious behavior can be attributed to be driven by strong realist motivations and interests. This can be explained as: on one hand, with its physical military presence, China benefits from the resource rich waters by exploiting the fisheries and hydrocarbon resources mainly oil and natural gas.

To meet the increasing demand of fish consumption both domestically and internationally, SCS offers a cost-effective supply chain. And that being a net importer of oil and natural gas, SCS offers an advantage to fulfill its overarching energy needs as well as safeguarding the SLCOs from any bottlenecks, which is vital to its import-export trade and thereby, integral to its growth and development.

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Now, Fiery Cross Reef has been transformed into an artificial island at least 3,000 yards long that experts say is big enough to include an airstrip and could become a Chinese command and control center for military operations in the area. Seen here in November.
Fiery Cross Reef has been transformed into an artificial island at least 3,000 yards long that experts say is big enough to include an airstrip and could become a Chinese command and control center for military operations in the area. Seen here in November. IHS Jane’s

While on the other hand, with such territorial control in the troubled waters, China gains the advantage to project its military power in the Asia Pacific region – posing a strong counterweight to the traditional balance of power mainly maintained by United States and its allies. It signals China’s military prowess and dexterous capability to counter any kind of security threat to its territorial sovereignty.

In this row of Chinese “artificial island buildup”, it can be anticipated that China’s next unilateral move in the region can be Beijing’s enforcement of its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea – a similar compellence strategy as envisaged by the China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to wade off Japan.

In this context, with such power projection mechanism endorsed by China’s stationing of infrastructure capabilities elevates the nerves of the other claimants. Such an action oriented approach signals escalation of tensions in the international waters of the Asia Pacific. Whereby, China seems to be more aggressive in its claim of territorial sovereignty.

Thereby, in this fall of events in the South China Sea, the reef frenzy raises security concerns not just for the countries concerned such as Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia – whose territorial claims overlap that of China’s, but is also indicative of China’s direct challenge to the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy as enforced in 2010 to counter balance China’s “rise” in Asia as well as it strategically aims to evade Japan’s strengthened claims and actions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

From the above assessment, it is agreeable that China is keen on changing the rules of the game. These Chinese activities clearly defy the existing status quo of the world order thereby, indicative of China’s keen interest to change the statutory norms of the international order.

With such actions, it also clarifies China’s gradual departure from Deng Xiaoping’s old dictum of “Keeping a low profile”. For China thinks that the time is ripe to stick its neck out. It is clear from China’s such uncalled unilateral behaviour in the South China Sea which has readily elevated the anxiety level among the actors in the game.

This is directive of the spiralling uncertainty which is resulting into grave concerns over China’s future intentions and motivations. Thereby, with increasing Chinese assertive behavior both literally and figuratively, it is hard to evade a military collision in the tensed bedrock of South China Sea in the near future.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors.

Amrita Jash is a Doctoral Candidate and Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/CHIN-01-050315.html
(Copyright 2015 Amrita Jash)

Related:

Photographs show China building on disputed South China Sea islands using reclamation to enlarge islands for ports and airstrips

 

China says it owns all the South China Sea north of the “nine dash line” shown above

China claims ownership of about 90% of the South China Sea. Most of China’s neighbors believe otherwise.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law. Experts say, this could be the geographic area that China could declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

 

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