The U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said, in a move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Defence Secretary Ash Carter has asked his staff to look at options that include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and sending U.S. naval ships to well within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by the Chinese in an area known as the Spratly Islands.
Such moves, if approved by the White House, would send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace.
The U.S. has said it doesn’t recognise the man-made islands as sovereign Chinese territory. Nonetheless, military officials said, the Navy has so far not sent military aircraft or ships within 12 nautical miles of the reclaimed reefs to avoid escalating tensions.
If the U.S. challenges China’s claims using ships or naval vessels and Beijing stands its ground, the result could escalate tensions in the region, with increasing pressure on both sides to flex military muscle in the disputed waters.
According to U.S. estimates, China has expanded the artificial islands in the Spratly chain to as much as 2,000 acres of land, up from 500 acres last year, according to U.S. officials. Last month, satellite imagery from defence intelligence provider IHS Jane’s showed China has begun building an airstrip on one of the islands, which appears to be large enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft.
The U.S. has used its military to challenge other Chinese claims Washington considers unfounded. In November 2013, the U.S. flew a pair of B-52 bombers over disputed islands in the East China Sea to contest an air identification zone that Beijing had declared in the area.
Officials said there was now growing momentum within the Pentagon and the White House for taking concrete steps to send Beijing a signal that the recent buildup in the Spratlys went too far and needed to stop.
Chinese officials dismiss complaints about the island-building, saying Beijing is entitled to undertake construction projects within its own sovereign territory. They say the facilities will be used for military and civilian purposes.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters,” said embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys. “The relevant construction, which is reasonable, justified and lawful, is well within China’s sovereignty. It doesn’t impact or target any country, and is thus beyond reproach.”
Mr. Zhu said that Beijing hopes that “relevant parties,” a reference to the U.S. military and its regional allies, will “refrain from playing up tensions or doing anything detrimental to security and mutual trust.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, and its efforts to enforce control of the area in recent years have caused growing concern in the U.S. and in Asia, where several nations have competing claims, including the Philippines, a U.S. ally.
U.S. military aircraft have repeatedly approached the 12-nautical-mile zone declared by China around the built up reefs. But to avoid an escalation, the planes haven’t penetrate the zone. A senior military official said the flights “have kept a distance from the islands and remained near the 12-mile mark.”
U.S. planes have flown close to the islands where the building has been taking place, prompting Chinese military officers to radio the approaching U.S. aircraft to notify the pilots that they are nearing Chinese sovereign territory. In response, U.S. pilots have told the Chinese that they are flying through international airspace.
The USS Fort Worth, a combat ship, has been operating in recent days in waters near the Spratlys. “We’re just not going within the 12 miles—yet,” a senior U.S. official said.
The military proposals haven’t been formally presented to the White House, which would have to sign off on any change in the U.S. posture. The White House declined to comment on the deliberations.
Officials said the issue is a complicated one because at least some of the areas where the Chinese have been doing construction are, in eyes of the U.S. government, legitimate islands, which would be entitled to a 12-nautical-mile zone.
The proposal under consideration would be to send Navy ships and aircraft to within 12 nautical miles of only those built-up sites that the U.S. doesn’t legally consider to be islands, officials say.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, reclaimed features aren’t entitled to territorial waters if the original features aren’t islands recognised under the agreement, U.S. officials say. Under that interpretation, the U.S. believes it doesn’t need to honour the 12-mile zone around the built-up reefs that weren’t considered to be islands before construction there began.
Several U.S. allies in the region have been privately urging the White House to do more to challenge Chinese behaviour, warning Washington that U.S. inaction in the South China Sea risked inadvertently reinforcing Beijing’s territorial claims, U.S. officials said. Some allies in the region have, in contrast, expressed concern to Washington that a change in the U.S.’s approach could inadvertently draw them into a conflict.
“It’s important that everyone in the region have a clear understanding of exactly what China is doing,” a U.S. official said. “We’ve got to get eyes on.” The U.S. has been using satellites to monitor building at the islands.
In recent months, the White House has sought to increase pressure on Beijing to halt construction on the islands through diplomatic channels, as well as by calling out the Chinese publicly in recent press briefings and government reports.
The U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation transits” in the region, including across the South China Sea. But the Navy has yet to receive explicit authorisation from the administration to do so within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands made by Beijing.
A new standoff with China would add to mounting security crises facing the U.S. in other regions.
Last year, after Russia seized Ukrainian territory, the White House imposed sanctions on Moscow but so far has rebuffed Ukrainian requests for U.S. weapons. In the Middle East, Islamic State militants took over large swaths of Iraq last summer, prompting the U.S. to launch an air campaign against the group.
John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, is due in Beijing this weekend to make preparations for a visit to the U.S. in September by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has made improving military ties with the U.S. a top priority.
The U.S. has long maintained that it doesn’t take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, although it has a national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the area. In the past year, though, U.S. officials have stepped up its criticism of China’s efforts to enforce and justify its claims in the region.
U.S. officials say they are concerned that a decision not to send naval vessels into the zone would inadvertently help the Chinese build their own case for sovereignty in the area.
Chinese coast guard vessels routinely sail within 12 nautical miles of the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu.
U.S. officials say they believe China sends vessels into the Senkaku area in the East China Sea because it wants to demonstrate to Tokyo and to others that Beijing doesn’t recognise the islands as Japanese sovereign territory.
China’s claims include territorial seas stretching out 12 nautical miles from all the Spratlys, where it controls seven reefs—all recently expanded into artificial islands. Rival claimants occupy several other islands, reefs and rocks.
Historical images from Google Earth and elsewhere reveal that reclamation work at most of the Chinese held reefs began after President Xi took power in 2012.
Much of the construction began in the past year, despite protests from neighbouring countries, warming military ties with Washington, and a new Chinese drive to improve relations in its periphery.
U.S. officials say they have repeatedly asked China to stop the work, to no avail.
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- China is committed to making territorial disputes worse (chinadailymail.com)
- East China Sea: What Do China and Japan Really Want? (chinadailymail.com)
- China Fires Back at Its South China Sea Critics (voanews.com)
- The South China Sea: Searching for calm in troubled waters (dailymaverick.co.za)
- Defense Department warns of China’s ‘extensive,’ expanding island-building (1-800-politics.com)
- Beijing Details Plans for Artificial Islands in South China Sea (spacewar.com)
- Beijing moves toward ‘de facto control of South China Sea’ – Philippines (rappler.com)