A stunning series of photos released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. offer a grim outlook for the region as Beijing ratchets-up its territorial assertions over the hotly disputed Spratly and Paracel islands.
At least four major man-made structures have been erected on Itu, Gaven, Johnson South and Fiery Cross reefs with supply platforms, communications, gun emplacements, and docking facilities installed alongside artificial islands over the winter months.
CSIS analyst Greg Poling said China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea – known as the East Sea in Hanoi and the West Philippines Sea in Manila – was progressing faster than anticipated and that Beijing had gone further than any other claimant.
“Its reclamation certainly violates the spirit of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) between China and ASEAN, and is at best on shaky legal grounds,” he said.
The DOC is supposed to facilitate dialogue among the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, providing a means to halt potential confrontations in the South China Sea before they escalate into something much worse.
But its implementation remains incomplete and Beijing is demanding territorial disputes involving the Spratly or Paracels be dealt with on a bilateral basis and not at a regional level through a unified ASEAN approach. That has divided loyalties within ASEAN.
Of members with overlapping claims, the Philippines and Vietnam have been vocal and Hanoi has been on a defense build-up through a series of major arms acquisitions with Russia worth billions of dollars, including six Kilo-class submarines and up to 20 Su-30 fighter-bombers.
Much to the irritation of the Chinese, Vietnam has also opened its highly strategic deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay to the world’s navies, in particular the United States, which built the facility and handed it over to what was then South Vietnam in 1972.
The Philippines has mounted legal action against China in the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and its navy is also adding two more warships to its fleet to counter the Chinese government’s increasingly assertive maritime ambitions.
However, their military capabilities still fall far short of a match for Chinese firepower.
“Vietnam and The Philippines have limited options beyond public criticism. They cannot resort to military force, and they do not want to enter a construction race in the Spratlys that will only destabilize the situation and which they could not win,” Poling said.
“Plus, for the Philippines especially, they must be seen to be maintaining the legal high ground as their arbitration case moves forward.”
China’s emphasis is always on its “String of Pearls” strategy — a forward line of friendly ports and islands stretching from its coastline into the Gulf of Siam and the Indian Ocean. This was noted during the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
The strategy is designed to protect its military and economic interests by securing alternative trade routes through the U.S.-Controlled Malacca Straits.
Construction of an oil and gas pipeline across Burma and into China’s backyard and planned railway lines through Indochina are prime examples of Beijing actively creating alternative, secure trade routes.
In the South China Sea its antics include creeping inside the 200 km exclusive economic zones that all littoral players in the maritime dispute are entitled to – then refusing to have the disputes heard in the international courts.
“At this point, Beijing is building on almost every rock and low-tide elevation it occupies; to do any more would require pushing another claimant off a feature or occupying an unoccupied feature,” Poling said.
“That would be an explicit violation of the DOC, and I don’t think China is ready to go that far yet.”
It almost sounds like it could be a Battle Royale being played out between political equals. But promoting a united ASEAN front – probably the best chance ASEAN member countries have of success – to Chinese encroachments has met with little success.
Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos have not backed a united approach to China over the dispute while Cambodia has openly sided with Beijing.
Not helping are Malaysia and Brunei, which have claims over the southern Paracels Islands, and have adopted a softly-softly approach, preferring to negotiate quietly with Beijing through diplomatic channels.
The wild card in the ASEAN equation is Indonesia, with recently elected President Joko Widodo yet to declare his hand after Beijing ended years of speculation and confirmed that its maritime claims, as defined by its nine-dash line, does indeed overlap Indonesia’s hold across the Natuna Sea.
Divisions within ASEAN have been to China’s advantage.
“Beijing’s relentless claims to the scattered atolls and reefs that fall within its now infamous Nine-Dash Line are national territory based on often the most flimsy and tangential claims is now literally being made concrete through a high speed construction program,” said Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with Hong Kong-based regional security firm Allan & Associates.
“For Beijing this may appear as a logical measure intended both to claim valuable resources while extending China defensible space. To the neighbors, the U.S. and much of the rest of the international community it appears as a softer version of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine: The creation of a line that can only be crossed with consequences.”
Greenwood said the U.S. card, particularly in the case of the Philippines, would be prominent given that its Asian pivot policy was at least partially responsible for China stepping-up its island construction program, which had not yet been matched by a serious counter response from Washington.
“While the U.S. Navy plans to increase its presence in the region through eventually forward basing in Singapore up to four small warships capable of little more than ‘flying the flag,’ China is developing a powerful force of highly capable destroyers that will serve as a credible deterrence.”
He also said China’s strategy held a familiar ring.
“Creating facts on the ground is a traditional rationalization for a revolutionary movement – which can mean among other things like the transition from theory, or weakness, into practice, or strength.
“The program of dredging and construction on the remote islets appear – like so many of China’s more utilitarian infrastructure projects – to be beyond accountancy and pursued without regard to cost.
“From Beijing’s perspective once the cement on an airstrip or fortification set atop a reef has hardened China’s claim has become a reality and the new land is as sovereign as Tiananmen Square and just as non-negotiable.”
To date, clashes in the disputed waters have been limited to tussles among frontline naval and fishing vessels, which have combined with the naval brinkmanship deployed by governments at home.
But the chances of independently verifying any claim from either side are slim, given that the logistics of maritime confrontations make them all but impossible for journalists to cover.
This will further complicate issues. Poling said Chinese reclamation work could be substantially finished by the end of the year, adding to concerns already held by strategists over the flashpoint.
“The size of the reclaimed features is also surprising, and will probably allow China to begin projecting more air and sea patrol and surveillance capabilities over the Spratlys by the end of 2015.
“Overall, I expect this increased presence of Chinese units in the area along with tensions from the probable arbitration court ruling to make this another tense and potentially dangerous year in the South China Sea,” he said.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt