Geopolitical debate often aspires to acta non verba (“deeds, not words”). In the South China Sea, Beijing has seemingly embraced this aspiration wholeheartedly as the region’s honey badger.
China’s latest act of fearless indifference? Spending the past year terraforming brand-new islands in the Sea’s hotly-contested Spratlys region. While it is not the first to dredge land in the region, the industrial scale of Beijing’s undertaking exceeds all other reclamation projects in the South China Sea combined. This has predictably resulted in a chorus of international criticism (example 1, 2, 3, and 4). China has voluntarily ceased dredging and reclamation operations in recent months, but the new islands have already shifted the geostrategic situation significantly in Beijing’s favour.
What’s Going on in the South China Sea?
The South China Sea is a significant source of Asian geopolitical tension. The Sea contains some of the most highly trafficked shipping channels in the world and is speculated to have large unexplored oil and gas deposits below it. Tensions have arisen from ongoing disputes between six countries (China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei) over ownership of the Sea’s 250-odd small islands and reefs. Depending on the tidal disposition of a particular feature, lawfully recognized possession could mean the granting of a 12-nautical mile (nm) territorial sea or the extension of a claimant’s 200-nm economic exclusion zone. Such demarcations would allow for the uncontested exploitation of undersea resources and fish stocks, to say nothing of the strategic implications of surface sea lane control.
Of course, China is not the only claimant making waves. Potential resources, sovereignty, and nationalist sentiment have meant that every claimant has voiced strong rhetoric pronouncing the primacy of its claim to ownership.
China’s rhetoric, however, is particularly antagonistic. Not only does China possess greater geopolitical and military might than the rest of the claimants combined, but China also lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea. It grounds its case on the questionable notion that because some Chinese dynasties claimed sovereignty over the disputed islands and reefs once in the past, they therefore remain Chinese possessions. The Chinese ‘nince-dash line’ encompasses disputed waters with virtually every other claimant, of whom all are further incensed by Beijing’s refusal to negotiate with them collectively in a single multilateral forum. Instead, Beijing has insisted on settling any disputes bilaterally, so that it can bring its superior economic and geostrategic weight to bear during negotiations with each individual claimant.
Worse, Chinese actions have risen in step with its growing economic and military power. Since 1992, a steady stream of naval standoffs and brinkmanship in the South China Sea has ratcheted up tensions between China and its neighbours. In the past few years, Beijing has shifted to an even more inflammatory strategy by patrolling the disputed waters with civilian maritime enforcement vessels. In this way, Beijing has subtly altered the waters’ status quo by essentially declaring the waters already theirs to patrol.
Much Ado About Islands
Island reclamation, then, seems to be the logical next step to further alter the status quo. Occupation is far more tangible than merely claiming it on a map. By making and then garrisoning these islands, China has dismissed the question of possession entirely by acting as if a disputed feature, and not just the surrounding waters, is already Chinese.
Once again, however, it should be noted that China is not the first to build something to lay a claim in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia have, at one point or another, all dredged or extended existing features to bolster their territory and reinforce their presence on various islands and reefs. Indeed, China is late to the island-building game.
But China’s land reclamation has been of unprecedented speed and scale. Whereas the other claimants mostly extended existing islands, China has literally created brand new islands. Since early 2014, it has dredged no less than seven reefs and low-tide elevation features, outnumbering all other claimant nations’ projects combined. This rapid insertion of Chinese infrastructure and presence has significant geopolitical ramifications, to say nothing of the massive, irreversible ecological damage being done to create these new landmasses.
China’s cessation of reclamation does not mean the cessation of infrastructure construction. There is clear evidence that the new islands show groundwork for sophisticated military capabilities. These include radar and satellite communications facilities, as well as advanced sensor platforms that can be used for weapons tracking and guidance. Over-the-horizon radar, for example, can be used to direct and vector Chinese mainland-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles. For the most part, however, these capabilities are arguably defensive in nature, and there is no evidence that China has brought in offensive weapons systems (save for some alleged mobile artillery).
Defensive or not, the new islands allow Beijing’s influence to extend much farther from the mainland. The islands’ combined infrastructure is probably insufficient to permanently host a large military presence, but it can certainly support expeditionary Chinese naval and air operations. This is a significant capability upgrade. Chinese naval and air units currently rely almost entirely on mainland bases for support: warships can resupply at sea but have to sail back to Chinese ports for any substantial refit, while aircraft are reliant on mainland airfields or aerial tankers from those airfields. With the new islands in the South China Sea, a Chinese naval flotilla can put in at one of the new harbours and Chinese aircraft can land at the new airstrips.
For its part, China has insisted that the islands enable it to fulfill its international obligations in, among other things, disaster prevention, maritime search and rescue, navigation safety, and ecological conservation. While this may be true, the islands’ geographical positioning is certainly dual-purpose and the redundancy in facilities is distinctly military. China now has three airfields in the Spratlys (each other claimant has one), and its airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef is long enough to support bomber aircraft in addition to the fighter jet and surveillance aircraft support capable by other claimants’ airstrips.
Speak Now, or Don’t, It Doesn’t Matter
Save for diplomatic criticism, little has been done to protest China’s actions. The Philippines, the largest (and geographically nearest) claimant of features in the Spratly island chain, has always been militarily and economically weak vis-à-vis China. Still reeling from a devastating typhoon in 2013, Manila has tried to level the playing field by bringing legal action at the Hague to challenge China’s claims.
The South China Sea’s flagship multilateral organization, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is paralyzed with inaction. Only four of ten members are claimants, and some non-claimant members would prefer to maintain friendly relations with China for geostrategic and economic reasons. Moreover, the Association’s marquee South China Sea initiative – a binding code of conduct for all claimants – is stalled in negotiations with China.
The United States, for its part, has largely refrained from siding with any claimant and instead urged a cessation of reclamation activities and a multilateral resolution. But Washington has also been distracted by pressures pivoting it away from Asia and back to the Middle East and Europe. More importantly, it is now in the midst of another presidential primary. China serves as a fantastic campaign soundbite but concrete, lasting action is unlikely to be made until at least 2017. At time of posting, Washington is considering ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols to challenge Beijing’s assertion for 12-nm territorial waters.
There is no doubt that Beijing capitalized on the region’s distraction. As before with its ‘sovereignty’ patrols, China has moved proactively to change the normative situation and force other stakeholders to either respond or accept the new status quo.
In this case, however, China has also thoroughly and irreversibly changed the geographical facts. To be sure, artificial islands and low-tide elevations (on which many artificial islands are built) are explicitly excluded from qualifying for territorial seas. But if the time came to prove whether a particular feature was originally a rock rather than a low-tide elevation (and thus entitled to a 12-nm territorial sea), it is now impossible to determine its pre-reclamation – i.e. natural – state. At best, it would force a complicated debate over claimants’ competing nautical sources and records and thus retard any proceeding. At worst, it would allow China to negotiate for the artificial islands as actual islands – and therefore be subject to territorial sea benefits.
This is the genius of Beijing’s island reclamation campaign. Despite some international criticism (that will in most cases fade with a waning news cycle), China has accomplished exactly what it set out to do – create real estate in the region to further tangibly alter the status quo. The newly created islands cannot simply be un-created, and they serve as excellent footholds for an enhanced Chinese presence.
Moreover, Beijing achieved all this while paying mere lip service to any diplomatic processes concerning the region. Voluntarily ceasing reclamation operations when the islands were finished is a matter of course and not a concession to international pressure. China’s insistence that it will not militarize the South China Sea while simultaneously packing the new islands with dual-use equipment is, at best, purposely ambiguous. Indeed, one could even argue that China’s participation but non-cooperation in ASEAN’s binding code of conduct negotiations allowed Beijing to ensure its dredging activities continued unhindered by stifling the exact binding mechanism that would have prevented that activity (and to get the most egregious conduct done before the code is implemented).
This cavalier attitude does not bode well for the region. The South China Sea is already one of the fastest-militarizing regions in the world. By further changing the theoretical military calculus in its favour, Beijing risks lending its neighbours further justification to increase defense spending and add to the region’s military density. In turn, this density increases the possibility that rhetorical bullets will one day, accidentally or purposely, escalate into actual missiles. But perhaps Beijing has fully embraced the honey badger persona. After all, its neighbours have been all verba, non acta. This is the fait accompli. As the rest of the world waffles and talks, China does not care as it walks the walk.
Ernest Chong graduated from the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He is currently an analyst with the Government of Canada. The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Government of Canada.