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article imageOp-Ed: China’s artificial islands in South China Sea – Major own goal?

By Paul Wallis     Mar 31, 2015 in World
Sydney - China has been building artificial islands on reefs in the many disputed areas around the South China Sea. Nations in the region are furious, and international business is worried that these new islands dominate major shipping lanes.
The latest round of rhetoric in this ongoing mess has been fired by US admiral Harry Harris, who’s called the islands China’s Great Wall of Sand. The “sand” refers to the extensive raising of reefs on a sand base. At least one island contains what looks like a runway base, built on previously submerged reefs and other facilities. They’re big, too, many hectares in size. It’s a massive project.
Legalities and more legalities
This new phase of the long conflict between China, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines regarding offshore claims has dramatically raised the diplomatic stakes. It’s also thrown a very large spanner in to any possibility of agreement, and there’s a new legal argument in the confused mess of claims and counter claims.
Whether the Chinese territorial claims are valid or not, the new islands are prima facie Chinese property. Building offshore facilities isn’t illegal per se. Most nations do have some “renovated” islands or natural features offshore. Other countries, like Holland, reclaim land from the sea.
The various islands are in what’s now called international waters. Nobody owns them. This means that other countries which don’t officially own the islands also have a somewhat diluted legal claim to a say in the matter.
Economics and strategies
The generally accepted reasons for the Chinese claim for the islands vary from claiming underwater gas reserves to being part of the Chinese position in its many often acrimonious disputes with regional neighbors. China annexed the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, using military force.
Admiral Harris states that the new islands are a way of China projecting force in the region, specifically air power, to dominate the South China Sea. That’s a matter of considerable concern internationally. The South China Sea is the biggest shipping route in the world, connecting China, Japan and eastern Russia to trade coming through Singapore. 60% of Australia’s maritime trade goes through the South China Sea.
Domination of this region means at least the theoretical ability to dictate the movements of trade. If shipping in the South China Sea were “blockaded in reverse”, it would have to be rerouted, costing billions in additional shipping costs. China, of course, would be unaffected. It’s a sneaky but potentially very effective card to be able to play against trade sanctions, too.
The military angle
The ability to “project power” militarily only works to the extent that power can function effectively against other military forces. This part of the equation is less clear, and far less certain of success in any real conflict. This could be an embarrassing mistake for China, in more ways than one.
Extended reach is one thing; extended over-commitment is another. Islands, by definition, are not invulnerable to anything. These islands are well outside the range of quick, effective support from the Chinese mainland. A few thoughtful cruise missiles could turn any island facility in to an expensive non-issue. These islands are basically large targets in that sense.
Nor is it likely that any amount of air power based on them could take on an American carrier force for any length of time. Japan’s very competent navy and air force could definitely manage strikes and defence in depth against these forward bases.
Supplying the islands in a real conflict could also be very problematic. The likely conflict scenario of long term, large scale anti-submarine warfare (ASW)across a huge stretch of ocean means that China’s limited ASW capacities would have to manage multiple zones of defence to protect assets and shipping.
Creating a conflict in which the US has already stated it will aid its allies, Japan and the Philippines, is unlikely to work on any level for any length of time in a real combat scenario. It may be overstating the case to say that the islands could give China the military equivalent of a Third Opium War, but only to a degree. In the Opium Wars, China was militarily humiliated, largely through obsolescence. In this scenario, an obsolete strategic context is creating a lot of tactical liabilities which the Chinese really can’t address effectively, even with a modern navy and air force. The claimed area is nearly the size of China itself. There are almost endless points of access to it for hostile forces. China does not have unlimited resources to manage these possible areas of incursion.
Militarily, the theory of “overstretch” means that military resources are deployed to the extent that they simply cannot manage the logistics and combat realities of a conflict. China is building a potential disaster for itself in that sense. This is overstretch on a truly colossal scale. The Chinese navy and air force simply do not have the ability to maintain any military position in the South China Sea for an extended period of time.
Sun Tzu said, “Strike into emptiness. Bypass what the enemy defends.” These islands are the exact opposite. They’re a monument to static positioning in a world where static positioning is obsolete at best.
Diplomatically, the islands could have been a divide and conquer scenario, splitting competing interests. Giving the Americans and others more excuses to condemn China is hardly a smart move. In terms of trade, China has much to lose from an unsuccessful move.
Beijing would be very well advised to consider its options. This initiative has given every anti-Chinese lobby and interest in Asia free capital to use against China. The military position is dubious at best. The trade position could backfire catastrophically. China could lose more than “face”. It could lose credibility. Stupidity isn’t a commodity much in demand in Asia or anywhere else.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about China, South china sea, spratly islands, international law and South China Sea territorial , china military
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