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How China Is Building Up Its Naval Muscle

  • Shin Dingli
  • July, 2019
  • 127
  • China’s Maritime Disputes

THE EAST AND SOUTH CHINA SEAS ARE THE SCENE OF ESCALATING TERRITORIAL DISPUTES BETWEEN CHINA AND ITS NEIGHBORS, INCLUDING JAPAN, VIETNAM, AND THE PHILIPPINES.

China’s growing assertiveness has fueled concerns over armed conflict and raised questions about Washington’s security commitments in the region.

MAPPING THE CLAIMS

Six countries lay overlapping claims to the East and South China Seas, an area that is rich in hydrocarbons and natural gas and through which trillions of dollars of global trade flow. As China expands its maritime presence and constructs military outposts on artificial islands, it has been met by growing assertiveness from other regional claimants, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The increasingly frequent standoffs span from the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, on China’s eastern flank, to the long stretch of archipelagos in the South China Sea that comprise hundreds of islets. The United States has also ramped up its military activity and naval presence in the seas, signaling Washington’s heightened role in the disputes, which, if not managed wisely, could turn part of Asia’s maritime regions from thriving trade channels into arenas of conflict.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

China’s maritime disputes span centuries. The tug-of-war over sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkakus in the East China Sea can be traced to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, while Japan’s defeat in World War II and Cold War geopolitics added complexity to claims over the islands. The fight over overlapping exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea has an equally complex chronology of events steeped in the turmoil of Southeast Asian history. Globalization-including extensive free trade pacts between claimants-and recent developments, such as the U.S. commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and increased military presence in the seas, have further connected the two disputes. As China’s economic ascent facilitates growing military capabilities and assertiveness in both seas, other regional players are also experiencing their own rise in nationalism and military capability, and have exhibited greater willingness to stake territorial claims.

POWER PROJECTION

In recent years, China has undertaken drastic efforts to dredge and reclaim thousands of square feet in the South China Sea. It has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems on the Spratly Islands, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, and constructed military infrastructure on several artificial islands, such as such as runways, support buildings, loading piers, and communications facilities. China’s land development has profound security implications. The potential to deploy aircraft, missiles, and missile defense systems to any of its constructed islands vastly boosts China’s ability to project power, extending its operational range south and east by as much as 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

CHINA’S ISLAND BUILDING

China’s highest rate of island development activity is taking place on the Paracel and Spratly Island chains. Beijing has reclaimed more than 3,200 acres (PDF) since late 2015, more land than all other claimants combined in the past forty years, according to a U.S. Defense Department report. Satellite imagery has shown unprecedented activity from China on Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, including the possible construction of helipads, airstrips, piers, and radar and surveillance structures. In addition to China, the Spratlys are claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

POLICY OPTIONS

Thousands of vessels, from fishing boats to coastal patrols and naval ships, ply the East and South China Sea waters. Increased use of the contested waters by China and its neighbors heighten the risk that miscalculations by sea captains or political leaders could trigger an armed conflict, which the United States could be drawn into through its military commitments to allies Japan and the Philippines. Policy experts believe that a crisis management system for the region is crucial.

1. RESOURCE SHARING

Claimants in both the South China Sea and East China Sea could cooperate on the development of resources (PDF), including fisheries, petroleum, and gas. A resource-sharing agreement could include bilateral patrolling mechanisms, which would deter potential sources of conflict like illegal fishing and skirmishes arising from oil and gas exploration. More collaborations in the mold of joint fishery deals like those between China and Vietnam and Japan and Taiwan could mitigate risk by sharing economic benefits.

2. BUILDING A MULTILATERAL FRAMEWORK

The development of a multilateral, binding code of conduct between China and ASEAN countries ...

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