That the Chinese were up to something was already obvious looking at the decision to classify the South China Sea as a “core national interest” among others such as Tibet and Taiwan, taken in 2012 by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Some have compared this decision to the one taken by US President Monroe back in 1823, when US ruled out European powers from American issues, creating its own “backyard” which included the whole American continent and the Caribbean. This is known as the “Monroe Doctrine”.
China is trying to do the same thing. Since taking that decision, in fact, their activities in the South China Sea have increased. Despite the fact that disputes among coastal countries – namely Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia – for the control of the islands in the South China Sea go way back, China has always looked elsewhere for its strategic (and military) interests. An exception is the short but bloody war with Vietnam in 1988, which gave Beijing control of the Johnson South Reef, a small reef of the Spratly Islands.
Indeed China does not control any “real” island but just a bunch of outposts built on reefs, shoals or banks.
However, this scenario is changing.
Chinese claims on South China Sea
The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometers. The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged. The features are grouped into three archipelagos – Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Pratas Islands -, Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal.
Most of the coastal countries have some claims on the South China Sea, but only China and Taiwan are claiming it (almost) as a whole. The reason is a theory known as the “nine-dotted line”, shown on a map for the first time in 1947 (so belonging to both China and Taiwan). It is a line of demarcation that includes 80% of the waters until the coast of Philippines, Vietnam and even Borneo. If we consider also the claims of the other coastal countries, together with the Exclusive Economic Zones as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the scenario is ready for conflicts.
Even more if we look at the new strategy of China.
China is intervening in the South China Sea in different ways. One of them is of course with its massive military presence, compared to those of the other “rival” coastal countries. The other is increasing oil and/or gas-drilling activity, given that authorities affirm that the coral atolls of the South China Sea sit atop potentially huge reserves of oil and gas, bigger than those of Kuwait. However, this topic is controversial since related data has still not been confirmed.
Mostly, what they are doing is literally creating islands. These rumors have been confirmed last September when a BBC troupe filmed for the first time these building activities.
In other words, China is trying to close the gap with its rivals by building new islands where there were none (a look at Google Earth can confirm this statement). Millions of tons of rock and sand have been dredged up from the sea floor and pumped into the reef to form new land. It is clear how these Neverlands can add fuel to the fire.
The question is : Why China is pushing so far?
One reason is that, in this moment, China cannot conquer islands that belong to others, although it may want to. Shooting soldiers, as China did at Johnson South in 1988, is one thing; shooting women and children which now inhabit these islands is quite another.
Another, and probably the main reason, is that China wants to push away its real strategic rival: the United States. For China the struggle over the South China Sea is less about resources, though, than it is about sovereignty and strategic space. Nor is this just a quarrel with the Philippines and other countries bordering the sea. The US government does not acknowledge China’s claim, and the US Pacific fleet continues to sail regularly through the South China Sea. But the Chinese navy is beginning to grow more assertive. Everything inside the so-called “first island chain” is in Beijing’s opinion its own “backyard”. Beijing’s ambition is to dominate this sea and, lastly, to deny access to the only other naval power in the world that can prevent China from doing so.
It is therefore no wonder Philippines are trying to pull the US in the dispute by affirming that these new islands will serve as ports and military air bases. Maybe even on the Johnson South Reef, as was apparently confirmed by a project of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation.
At that point, this will be a challenge that probably the US would not let down.