Approximately 870 miles from Hong Kong lies the Spratly Islands — a series of reefs and shoals — claimed by nearby countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. The area is known for its commercial fishing grounds and has the potential for undersea natural resources.
Two years ago, China began a land reclamation project that was, when completed last October, responsible for adding 3,200 acres of land to three sites; Fiery Cross Reef, Hugh Reef and Gaven Reef. Each of the projects began with a single structure, but now have been expanded to contain an artificial island and a dredged channel. According to a statement by James Hardy, Jane’s Asia Pacific editor, each now has “helipads, airstrips, harbors, and facilities to support large numbers of troops.” (CNN, Katie Hunt reporting, February 17, 2015) Even the Pentagon has gone on record, stating that they believe the structures also contain surveillance systems. Looking at each project, they bear such a similarity to each other, that it appears that there is some standardization involved. If that is so, it begs the question of whether there will be more projects such as these in the future?
So, why are these countries allowing China to simply invade and develop what is considered their land?
Answers to this question can vary. Some, like Vietnam, for example, have filed mild legal protests with the United Nations citing maritime and other international law, but have become mired down in the legal hair-splitting world of definitions: What legally constitutes a “reef?” What is the definition of a “shoal?,” further bogging down the process without resolution. Others, like the Philippines, have protested the loudest (and perhaps the longest), as they suggest the strategic value of the reefs and shoals lie in the fact that they are adjacent to major shipping channels and trade routes in the South China Sea, which could heavily influence their country’s economics.
A recent report from the Pentagon also warned that China was committed to sustaining a growth pattern, even if it meant doing so on distant shores. (Reuters, Phil Stewart David Brunnstrom reporting, May 14, 2016). This seems to correspond to recent economic reports which state that China has recently cut its interest rates in order to stimulate their economy because their rising debt levels have had the effect of limiting their fiscal expansion plans. So much so, that now regulators have now forbidden the practice of buying stocks with borrowed funds. Also reported, $300 billion dollars have left China in the last six months, in part due to the strength of the U.S. dollar, but also because the confidence in the Chinese economy is waning. (The Wall Street Journal, Lingling Wei reporting, May 11, 2016)
So, with the possible motivational aspects that China may have in an economic sense, are they also positioning themselves militarily in the sense that each of these three Reefs are now considered by the Pentagon to be long-term civil-military bases, each having a 9,800 foot airstrip, capable of accommodating advanced fighter jets? More chilling, are the reports that China intends to establish naval “hubs” in countries with which they have shared interests — as they do in Pakistan.
In an effort to continue to sail in international waters, and possibly to show our support of the Philippines with whom we have had a long-standing relationship, the U.S. Navy recently deployed the USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship (able to patrol in coastal waters) to the South China Sea on a route that took it near the Spratly Islands. The Fort Worth was immediately shadowed by a Chinese guided-missile frigate, the Yancheng. In spite of Commander Matt Kawas’ official statement that “Our interactions with the Chinese ships continue to be professional,” China issued a stern warning in response against the U.S. “taking any actions that might be considered provocative.” (CNN, Brad Landon and Jim Sciutto reporting, May 14, 2016).
All of this rhetoric has prompted Secretary of State, John Kerry, to travel to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders which he did so today and will continue to do so tomorrow. The State Department has released a statement suggesting that Secretary Kerry will leave no doubt in China’s mind that the U.S. will continue to have a presence in international waters — and fly in international airways — even if they are in the South China Sea.
Move over, Mr. Trump. There’s a new bully in town … and it’s called China.