NEW DELHI – Without incurring any international cost, China belligerently continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done before. Its modus operandi to extend its frontiers in the South China Sea — a global trade and maritime hub — involves creating artificial islands and claiming sovereignty over them and their surrounding waters.
In just a little over two years, it has built seven islands in its attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which $5.3 trillion in trade flows every year. In fact, about half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the South China Sea.
Beijing may claim to base its expansive claims in the South China Sea on historical records, including a 1947 map made by the Kuomintang, but it was only in 2009 that it lodged with the United Nations its so-called nine-dash line, which pushes up against the coastlines of all the other countries in the region. And it was not until late 2013 that it quietly began turning rock outcrops and reefs into islands to serve as its strategic outposts, including one that now houses a 3,000-meter airstrip for warplanes.
China’s moves in the South China Sea are actually part of its larger strategy to build up maritime influence and secure sea lanes in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing appears to be using the South China Sea as a testing ground for changing the Asia-Pacific geopolitical map. China’s recent acknowledgement that it is establishing its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa, represents a transformative moment in its quest for supremacy at sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, by calling China an important stakeholder in the Arctic, has indicated that it intends to play an active role there too, given that the global-warming-induced thaw of sea ice could, in due course, open up important sea lanes through that region. But China’s current emphasis beyond the South China Sea is on expanding its maritime interests in the adjacent Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
In this endeavor to advance its geostrategic interests, China is assertively using geoeconomic tools, such as the Maritime Silk Road — which seeks to link its eastern coast with the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East — and the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The twin Silk Road initiative has become a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s muscular new foreign policy.
In the South China Sea, the speed and scale of China’s creation of islands and military infrastructure have astounded the world. According to a Pentagon report in August, China in 20 months reclaimed 17 times more land than all the other claimant-states combined over the past four decades. Yet China’s creeping invasion has been met with little international response other than rhetoric.
The militarily pre-eminent United States, although it sees itself as a resident power in Asia, has focused its concern merely on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on ratcheting up pressure on China to stop it from altering the status quo in its favor.
In fact, the U.S. — as elsewhere in Asia, including the Himalayas and the East China Sea — has refused to take sides in the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. No less significant is the fact that President Barack Obama’s administration has hesitated to provide strategic heft to its much-publicized pivot to Asia.
Even the modest measure announced in 2011 to permanently rotate up to 2,500 U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia, is yet to be fully implemented. Indeed, to Washington’s acute discomfiture, a Chinese company with links to the People’s Liberation Army — Landbridge Group — recently acquired the right to operate Darwin port under a 99-year lease. The company intends to invest 200 million Australian dollars ($147 million) to build a large wharf at Darwin.
In truth, the Obama administration has done little to deter China from disturbing the territorial and maritime status quo in Asia. Beijing thus has had no disincentive to halt its expansion.
Moreover, Washington’s failure to add strategic content to the pivot, or rebalance, to Asia has raised questions about the U.S. commitment to the region, thus discouraging Asian states from taking their own initiative to respond to China’s encroachments. The Obama administration, while talking about pivoting to Asia, has in reality pivoted away, in part because of its preoccupations in the Middle East.
China’s man-made islands, under international law, do not enjoy traditional rights, including to a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) territorial sea around them. However, the U.S. has shied away from any action that would clearly convey to China that such islands have no right to territorial waters.
ASEAN disunity has also aided Beijing’s aggression. The South China Sea has emerged as ASEAN’s Achilles heel. The group’s reluctance to take a unified stance has pleased China — its largest trade partner — yet, by conveying weakness, it has emboldened Chinese aggression.
Encouraged by international inaction, ASEAN’s failure to take a joint stand, and a series of crises that have helped divert global attention, Beijing has been feverishly turning low-tide elevations into small islands by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In the process, it has been creating new “facts on the ground” for enforcing an air defense identification zone without having to declare one.
China’s new islands and military facilities not only threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but are also spawning aggressive Chinese coast guard patrolling. Hanoi, for example, has accused Chinese patrols of frequently intercepting Vietnamese fishing boats, ramming them, damaging equipment and beating up crews.
As for the U.S., despite Obama’s softly-softly foreign policy approach coming under withering criticism at home, it can savor a diplomatic boon from China’s expansionist drive — a strengthened and expanded American-led coalition in Asia. Thanks to growing Asian concerns over China’s assertiveness, the U.S. has managed to reinforce old alliances with such nations as Japan, the Philippines and Singapore, forge strategic ties with India, Vietnam and Indonesia, and befriend the former pariah state of Myanmar.
This diplomatic windfall is one reason why Obama probably sees inaction as a sound policy.
Make no mistake: The South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic center of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The region is important even for distant states because it is pivotal to global trade and also because what happens there will impinge on Asian power equilibrium and global maritime security. Developments in the South China Sea — the world’s newest maritime hot spot — carry the potential of upending even the current liberal world order by permitting brute power to trump rules.
If ASEAN states and regional powers like Japan and India do not evolve a common strategy to deal with the South China Sea dispute within an Asian framework, the issue will be left to China and the U.S. to address through a great-power modus vivendi sidelining the interests of the smaller disputants. The common strategy must give meaning to the recent appeal of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all countries to “avoid unilateral actions,” given the “critical importance of the sea lanes in the South China Sea.”
The South China Sea’s centrality to the wider geopolitics, balance of power and maritime order should induce like-minded states to work closely together to positively shape developments, including by ensuring that continued unilateralism is not cost-free. Only sustained pressure from China’s neighbors can persuade Beijing that its future lies in cooperation and not confrontation. Failure to exert such pressure could create a systemic risk to Asian stability and prosperity.
Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”