22 June 2018

The Economist: “China has Militarised the South China Sea and Got Away with it”

Banyan, “China has Militarised the South China Sea and Got Away with it,” The Economist, 21 June 2018.

It is not clear what the “consequences” are that America has promised

LESS than three years ago, Xi Jinping stood with Barack Obama in the Rose Garden at the White House and lied through his teeth. In response to mounting concern over China’s massive terraforming efforts in the South China Sea—satellite images showed seven artificial islands sprouting in different spots—the country’s president was all honey and balm. China absolutely did not, Mr Xi purred, “intend to pursue militarisation” on its islands. Its construction activities in the sea were not meant to “target or impact” any country.

… Last month came the revelation that China had installed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles on three islands in the Spratly archipelago west of the Philippines—far, far from its own shores. … That follows China’s biggest ever naval review, in the South China Sea in April. Later in May China declared that several bombers had landed in the Paracel Islands, which it disputes with Vietnam. …

While other claimants continue to dredge, expand and reinforce the islets they occupy, the scale of China’s reclamation—which has slowed at last but which covers about 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) in the Spratlys alone—dwarfs all the others’ efforts put together. China had claimed to be serving the common good…. That never rang true. For one thing, the reclamation is an ecological catastrophe. Reefs are crucial spawning grounds for the sea’s fast-diminishing fisheries, which account for 12% of the global catch. China’s recent actions further undermine its professions of altruism and redraw the strategic map. Admiral Philip Davidson, the new head of America’s Indo-Pacific Command, says that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

The question is what others will do about it. To date, Chinese expansionary tactics have for the most part involved incremental steps: moves not so provocative as to incite a response. One trick is not always to deploy the navy, but the coastguard and “maritime militias”, when intimidating neighbours. That, as Andrew Erickson of America’s Naval War College argues, has allowed China to get its way with less fuss. Presumably China thinks it can now get away with it again. … …

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “A Chinese lake”