Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), believes China is “changing the operational landscape” in the South China Sea with its deployment of missiles and radar. Harris, a straight-talking military man, says this is part of a plan to achieve “hegemony in East Asia.” It is hard to disagree.

China is one of six claimants — the others are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — to territory in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which passes $5 trillion worth of commerce each year, that provides protein for an estimated 500 million people, and which is thought to have extensive mineral resources. China’s claims are the most expansive, extending over almost all of the water and land. At a recent naval conference, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the North Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), spoke for many Chinese when he said that “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.”

The basis of the Chinese claim is history. Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan province in southern China, has argued that “China was the first country to discover and name these island groups. The history of continuous use and exercise of authority spans over 2,000 years.”

That may be impressive, but it is also irrelevant. The relevant documents, in particular the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and legal precedents do not credit such historical claims. Instead, they rely on hard evidence — of which there is little. The fragility of the Chinese claim is highlighted by Beijing’s refusal to take up the Philippines’ call to take their dispute to an international tribunal. The reluctance to submit the claim to a neutral arbitrator in accordance with the provisions of the major international agreement governing such disputes — despite China’s signature on that document — undermines Beijing’s claim that it seeks the peaceful resolution of these questions.

Instead, China is determined to create “facts on the ground,” by building a Great Wall of the Sea. For the past few years, Beijing has pushed an aggressive program of land reclamation, turning small islets, rocks and even lagoons into islands throughout the South China Sea. According to international law, however, such activities cannot transform the characteristics of such “features.” For example, if a rock protrudes from the water only at low tide, it does not qualify as a separate maritime zone. China’s actions therefore are not bolstering its legal claims.

That has not stopped China from using these newly claimed islands as bases at which they station troops, build runways, deploy aircraft and, most recently, install surface-to-air missiles and radar systems. These most recent developments have captured the attention of Harris and other naval planners in the United States and other countries, who worry that China is beginning to establish an umbrella to deny enemy forces access to the area in the event of a conflict as well as project power further into Southeast Asia. Experts predict China will soon declare the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as it did in the East China Sea in November 2013, a move that China would use to bolster its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

China has countered that the new facilities are going to be used for research and for search and rescue missions. It has pointed out that the missiles dispatched to Woody Island in the Paracel chain are not new; they have been sent there twice previously.

Beijing also claims it is not militarizing the islands. It bases that argument on a linguistic twist that distinguishes between offensive and defensive capabilities. Since the equipment sent to the islands is intended for defensive purposes, it cannot be called militarization. That is a curious argument given the complaints that Beijing has leveled against Seoul for considering the deployment of missile defense systems. Equally laughable is the Chinese claim that it is doing just as the United States does to protect Hawaii. Hawaii is undisputed U.S. territory and there is no question about its status.

China blames the U.S. for causing tension and acting irresponsibly by sending vessels to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Beijing also charges the U.S. with interfering in disputes that do not concern it. In fact, the U.S., like Japan and many other countries, has direct interests in the continued freedom of passage in those waterways. No country has a greater stake in the free flow of commerce. Much of the cargo flowing through the South China Sea is either going to or from the U.S., or one of its allies. Its freedom of navigation exercises are a reminder of the many national interests invested in the South China Sea.

Indeed, more countries should be sending the same message to China, making clear to Beijing that its intrusions into international waters and its unilateral attempts to rewrite the status quo will not be tolerated. Defense Minister Gen Nakatani made this point last week noting, “Construction of a stronghold in the South China Sea, the use for military purposes, and unilateral actions that increase tensions by changing the status quo are a common concern throughout international society, and our country takes the position that it is important to coordinate to protect an open, free, peaceful sea.” The failure to do so will encourage China to continue its creeping annexation of the South China Sea.

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