For years now, China has been making strategic moves to become the more prominent power in the East and has even started to challenge the balance of power in the West. In China’s quest for more power in the Pacific, they have been filling in reefs in the South China Sea (SCS), claiming them as territory, and arming them in order to protect their sovereignty.
Mischief Reef, that used to be completely underwater, has been transformed over the past five years from an atoll inhabited by fish and plant life into a military base occupied by China. This base is complete with a runaway long enough to accommodate a fighter jet, radar domes, and shelters for surface-to-air missiles.
Admiral Davidson said to The New York Times, ‘In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.’
In turn, there is no lack of response from the United States or their allies. The US conducted training and routine missions where they fly a Poseidon P-8A, a maritime patrol aircraft, over the reefs that have been converted and claimed as Chinese territory. Although it is largely considered international air, China does not support or comply with the flyovers that are done by the US. When US a military plane flies over the reefs a strict warning comes across from the Chinese military commanding the US to turn away; China claims that the US is violating their sovereignty with these missions. The New York Times was able to observe one of these missions on board a US Poseidon 9-8A. They reported that the Chinese warning that was issued read, ‘You have violated our China sovereignty and infringed on our security and our rights. You need to leave immediately and keep far out.’
The US is not alone in challenging China’s positioning. Japan has been making military and political actions to stop China’s increasing control since 2010, but recently are ramping up their military approached even more in the South China Sea. The shipping lanes that pass through there are of critical importance to Japan as they serve a lifeline for Tokyo’s economics and energy. This is a necessary strategic move for Japan, as China is seen as one of there foremost strategic challenges. Japan is closely allied with the US in their quest to become more military involved in the South China Sea. They will be able to benefit from the vast supply of the US Navy.
Japan is also championing a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ alongside Australia and India. This is a part of the political strategy to contain Chinese expansion and curtail China from claiming or creating anymore territory in the South China Sea. Japan’s biggest concern is that China will completely claim the SCS as their territorial waters. This would pose a large threat to Japan’s economy. As stated by Sato, ‘In territorial waters, the passage of even commercial vessels can be regulated during international conflicts. Even during peacetime, foreign military vessels cannot freely transit such waters or conduct exercises or intelligence-gathering activities.’
The actions that any military takes to counter China’s control and territorial claims is met with strong resistance from China. Beijing has not hesitated to deploy fighter and bomber planes in protest of what they refer to as an infringement on their territory and sovereignty. This has prompted Japan, Australia, and India specifically to join together in combating China’s rise. However, they have not come together in full force. This can be attributed to Japan’s scepticism of US President Donald Trump’s commitment to Asia, as well as Japan taking a careful approach in arms transfers in order to ensure that unity is maintained in Southeast Asia.
This conflict comes down to the overarching issue of sovereignty. China claims that their sovereignty is being infringed on when other countries conduct military operations near the SCS as they have claimed this territory as their own. However, in accordance with international law, all countries have the right to conduct trade, move information, and lay communication cables, giving the US and its allies reason to continue their campaign. It seems China’s claims will remain contested for the foreseeable future.
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