China reclaimed more than 1,295 hectares of land in the southeastern area of the South China Sea, and is now developing and arming those man-made islands, in order to give the country greater control over the disputed territory without having to resort to armed conflict.
The latest Pentagon report has uncovered some alarming developments in the South China sea.
The US’ Department of Defense said three of the land features on the Spratly islands are now equipped with 10,000-foot runways and large ports in various stages of construction. In addition to that, China has also excavated deep channels, created and dredged harbors, and put up communications, logistics and intelligence-gathering facilities.
While the report argued that the enhanced building efforts did not give China any new territorial rights, it warned that the airfields, ship facilities, and surveillance and weapons equipment would allow China to significantly strengthen its long-term presence in the South China Sea. According to the report:
“This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to it, and reduce the time required to deploy them.”
Chinese officials have spoken in defense of the land reclamation by saying that it is Beijing’s territory, and that the buildings and infrastructure are for public service use and support for fishermen. They also accused the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries of implementing their own construction work on other islands.
“China is using coercive tactics short of armed conflict, such as the use of law enforcement vessels to enforce maritime claims, to advance their interest in ways that calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.”
The 1,295 hectares only represents China’s claim in the Spratlys. It does not include its building in the Paracels, located further northwest, and the contested Woody Island. The country has deployed anti-aircraft missiles to Woody Island, which is also disputed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The report also noted that China continued to assert sovereignty over the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands that are administered by Japan.
Pentagon refused to release details on the amount of increased reclamation in the Paracels, or to divulge more substantial estimates of the increase in building in the Spratly islands, to some of which the Philippines lays claims.
Territorial disputes between the Asian countries are tense – Vietnam, China and Taiwan all claim the Paracels, and the three, along with the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim all of parts of the Spratlys. While the United States announced it takes no sides in the territorial disputes, it encourages freedom of passage through the region, which is one of the world’s richest and busiest sea lanes.
The reported concluded by stating that China’s island building is designed to tiptoe
The report also repeats the belief made by Defense Secretary Ash Carter that continued provocation by China will only improve US relations in the Asia Pacific. To quote,
“China’s increasingly assertive efforts to advance its national sovereignty and territorial claims, its forceful rhetoric, and lack of transparency about its growing military capabilities and strategic decision-making continue to raise tensions and have caused countries in the region to enhance their ties with the United States.”
US officials are becoming increasingly concerned that China’s activities would soon necessitate the enforcement of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, like the one it declared over the disputed Japanese islands in the East China Sea last 2013.
Lastly, the report notes that China continues to target US government and defense department computer systems through cyber intrusions.
“The information targeted could potentially be used to benefit China’s defense industry, high technology industries, and provide the CCP insights into US leadership perspective on key China issues.”