China isn't just expanding its military reach into the South China Sea, it's rapidly building completely new islands, and as you'd expect, that's generating plenty of anxiety from the other nations in the neighborhood.
China is taking desolate reefs among the Spratly Islands and building them into man-made bases. Some see this as no more than a navigational headache and a regional issue with little impact. Others, however, believe it's a much more subversive activity, giving China the ability to claim a vast economic exclusion zone where it could control shipping, fishing, energy production, and even air travel over one of the busiest transportation corridors in the world.
Some of China's newly built islands are rumored to eventually become highly defended stationary "aircraft carrier battle groups" where they could house fighter aircraft, long range sensors, and missile systems – both of the surface-to-surface and surface-to-air variety. In doing so, China would be in the process of creating a fortress-like network of sea bases where it could project power and literally control the flow of a large portion of the world's shipping.
Currently, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei lay claim to some part of the Spratly Islands. None of these nations recognize China's claim on any of this territory, nor does the US. But short of a war, what can be done? Some of these emerging islands are already said to be occupied by highly trained Chinese commandos, and China is already building a long-range Coast Guard apparatus to protect their creations, in addition to it rapidly expanding naval forces, which includes a carrier strike group, at its disposal.
China has recently acquired some highly unique naval capabilities that are tailored for island-to-island and sea-to-island logistics, most notably and peculiarly purchasing Zubr Class hovercraft, and a license to produce them indigenously from Ukraine. Between an extremely long-range "Coast Guard" naval capability and the Zubr Class' ability to provide island accessible logistics on an unprecedented scale, it's clear that China is preparing to stake its claim on the Spratly Islands in a long-term, militarized way.
Although China's mainland coast is over 500 miles to the north of the Spratly Islands, China insists it has a cultural and historical claim on the territory. China has proclaimed that their sea-going ancestors discovered the islands long ago, and since then Chinese fisherman have harvested the waters as their own. Many view these claims as possibly relevant when it comes to maintaining China's fishing access in the region, but building artificial territory for strategic purposes is another story.
The reality is that under the UN's Law and Sea Convention, an island, even a small one, gets 12 nautical miles out to sea of territory to call its own and another 200 miles in any direction of mineral and fishing rights. You can imagine that if China has a string of these reefs-turned-sea-base-islands, they can claim a continuous swath of control ranging over hundreds of miles. With proven oil reserves measured in the billions of barrels and trillions of cubic feat of natural gas, China's man-made island chain also could end up greatly offsetting its ferocious appetite for energy, the vast amount of which the Chinese are relegated to importing.
As far as what can be done about China's potentially geopolitical norm-shattering island production campaign, there are few options that don't involve armed confrontation.
Washington has played the issue very softly, mentioning it from time to time, but not doing much in terms of confronting the Chinese on the issue directly. If Washington were to change course, which is possibly under a new Administration, the best way to do so would be to work with neighboring nations to pressure China into making a deal to share the territory in a way that's mutually beneficial. The only question is why would China sign on to such an agreement if it's already highly invested in commandeering the territory and growing its military might far exceeding that of all the nations with claims on the territory combined?
In the end, the US and the rest of the world may only confront China on the issue once Flanker fighter jets are flying from these man-made islands and missile batteries are being installed on them. At that point, short of dabbling in the possibility mutually assured economic destruction, whereby the Chinese could dump US bonds if America were to threaten high tariffs on Chinese goods, or other acts of negative reinforcement, it will probably be too late.
In actuality, China has every reason not to make a deal to share this highly strategic territory with its neighbors, including energy, fishing, shipping and air travel control, and will most likely just rely on the passive threat posed by its massive military as a deterrent against aggression and intervention. The only way to really have a shot at reversing what could be the biggest and most volatile territorial dispute of our time is to engage with China directly on the issue now, before construction on these islands is complete.
Considering how distracted the Obama Administration is with a whole slew of other issues, both external and internal, it's doubtful that this will happen. Meanwhile, the play clock is ticking down, and China is well aware of this.
Photos via China Defense Blog
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com