China and the World

Rocky relationship

US claims China is militarising artificial islands


Joe Biden warned Xi Jinping not to provide “material support” to Moscow during a phone call last week, as Sino-US ties continue to be strained by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Chinese readout of the call between the two leaders was different, including Xi’s response that “only the one who tied the bell to the tiger can untie it”. The implication is that the Chinese government believes the US is at fault for much of the crisis by allowing the Ukrainian push to join NATO, which has stirred the Russians into a military response.

A lesser known flashpoint between the two governments is in the Spratly Islands, a largely uninhabited archipelago of more than 100 islets, shoals and sand banks midway between the Philippines and Vietnam. Here it is Beijing’s build-up of military strength that is alarming Washington and China’s neighbours in the region. The Chinese have installed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as introducing fighter jets, on at least three of the islands they have created in the disputed waters, the US military warned last week. Some, or all, of the archipelago is claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, which creates a confusing flurry of names for the islands concerned.

Taiping Island, which is controlled by the Taiwanese, is a good example. Taiping is the name used by the governments in Taipei and Beijing, although many maps still describe it as Itu Aba, which was another name that was in use prior to 1946. The Vietnamese call the island Ba Binh, however, and the Filipinos refer to it as Pulo ng Ligaw.

Despite the isolation and minimal population, the archipelago is a geopolitical hotspot, because of its location in the middle of several major trade routes. There is also talk of potential gas and oil deposits, although there hasn’t been much detailed exploration of the area.

John Aquilino, commander of the US fleet in the Indo-Pacific, said the recent Chinese construction activity is in breach of assurances from Beijing that it wouldn’t transform the artificial islands into military bases. “I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military build-up since World War II by the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” he told The Associated Press. “They have advanced all their capabilities and that build-up of weaponisation is destabilising to the region.”

The American response has focused on so-called freedom of navigation missions, in which the US sends planes and boats in close proximity to the Chinese outposts. In the most recent instance it flew missions over the newly fortified islands as the Chinese protested below.“China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” Chinese radio operators messaged.

“I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” the American pilot radioed back.

It isn’t just the Chinese who have been putting in airstrips and military installations on islands in the archipelago but they have completed the most advanced construction, with the American flights over Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross identifying aircraft hangars, radar systems and other facilities.

China’s claim to the Spratlys is based on its “historic rights” across the large majority of the South China Sea within an area it maps out in a “nine-dash line” that stretches more than 1,200 miles from its mainland coast. Its case is that Chinese fishermen have been active in the South China Sea since the 13th century and that the Chinese discovered and named most of the islands. Soon after the Second World War, the Chinese government sketched out the nine-dash line in further support of its claims (the Taiwanese use a similar map, although they’ve added two more dashes).

In 2016 an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s historical case, adding that more than 100 features that are submerged at high tide cannot be referenced for sovereign claims either. “Land reclamation or other human activities that alter the natural state of a low-tide elevation or fully submerged feature cannot transform the feature into an island,” the tribunal insisted. Beijing rejected the ruling as “ill founded” and has continued to expand its presence in the region.

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