MANILA – It has been just five years since China initiated its major land reclamation in the South China Sea, and the country has already shifted the territorial status quo in its favor — without facing any international pushback. The anniversary of the start of its island building underscores the transformed geopolitics in a corridor central to the international maritime order.
In December 2013, the Chinese government pressed the massive Tianjing dredger into service at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago, far from the Chinese mainland. The Spratlys are to the south of the Paracel Islands, which China seized in 1974, capitalizing on American forces’ departure from South Vietnam. In 1988, the reef was the scene of a Chinese attack that killed 72 Vietnamese sailors and sunk two of their ships.
The dredger’s job is to fragment sediment on the seabed and deposit it on a reef until a low-lying man-made island emerges. The Tianjing — boasting its own propulsion system and a capacity to extract sediment at a rate of 4,530 cubic meters per hour — did its job very quickly, creating 11 hectares of new land, including a harbor, in less than four months. All the while, a Chinese warship stood guard.
Since then, China has built six more artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily expanded its military assets in this highly strategic area, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes. It has constructed port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water and ammunition, and even airstrips and aircraft hangars on the man-made islands. Reinforcing its position further, China has strong-armed its neighbors into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones.
Consequently, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidating those claims. China’s leaders seem intent on proving the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” And the world, it seems, is letting them get away with it.
The Chinese did not leave that outcome to chance. Before they began building their islands in the South China Sea, they spent several months testing possible U.S. reactions through symbolic moves. First, in June 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, without eliciting a tangible international response.
Almost immediately, the China State Shipbuilding Industry Corporation — which is currently building the country’s third aircraft carrier — published on its website draft blueprints for man-made islands atop reefs, including drawings of structures that have come to define China’s Spratly construction program. But the sketches received little international notice and were soon removed from the website, though they later circulated on some Chinese news websites.
In September 2013, China launched its next test: It sent the Tianjing dredger to Cuarteron Reef, where it stayed for three weeks without initiating any land reclamation. Commercially available satellite images later showed the dredger at another reef, Fiery Cross, again doing little. Again, the United States, under President Barack Obama, did not push back, emboldening China to start its first island-building project, at Johnson South Reef.
In short, as China has continued to build and militarize islands, it has taken a calibrated approach, gradually ramping up its activities, while keeping an eye on the U.S. reaction. The final two years of the Obama presidency were marked by frenzied construction.
All of this has taken a serious toll on the region’s marine life. The coral reefs China has destroyed to use as the foundation for its islands provided food and shelter for many marine species, as well as supplying larvae for Asia’s all-important fisheries. Add to that chemically laced runoff from the new artificial islands, and China’s activities are devastating the South China Sea ecosystems.
Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, has criticized his former boss’s soft approach toward China. In a recent essay, Carter wrote that Obama, “misled” by his own analysis, viewed as suspect “recommendations from me and others to more aggressively challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and other counterproductive behaviors.” For a while, Carter says, Obama even bought into China’s vision of a G2-style arrangement with the U.S.
Now, President Donald Trump’s administration is grappling with the consequences of Obama’s approach. Trump wants to implement a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is the successor to Obama’s unhinged “pivot” to Asia.
But, from its newly built perches in the South China Sea, China is better positioned not only to sustain air and sea patrols in the region, but also to advance its strategy of projecting power across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. How can there be any hope of a free and open Indo-Pacific, when the critical corridor linking the Indian and Pacific oceans is increasingly dominated by the world’s largest autocracy?
China’s territorial grab, a triumph of brute power over rules, exposes the vulnerability of the current liberal world order. The geopolitical and environmental toll is likely to rise, imposing major costs on the region’s states and reshaping international maritime relations.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. © Project Syndicate, 2018