It was 1829 and a young nation seeking to protect key sea lanes dispatched a commodore to remote islets and reefs, “over which the sea broke.” He found safe anchorage and went on to report if a hostile power should occupy them, national interests would be in “deadly peril”; and that “nothing but absolute naval superiority” would prevail.
However, if occupied and fortified, the islets would constitute the “advance post” for a defence of the nation’s economic and military interests. The location of the islets and reefs…was their strategic and geopolitical asset. The nation seized the opportunity and constructed one of the world’s largest brick fortresses on one, miles from the closest mainland. Today the relic is used as a park and even as a set for the odd zombie apocalypse film.
Today, China’s strategic interests navigate similar littoral waters and the concept has evolved technologically and politically into a breathtaking solution ideally suited for mobilising a nation’s political will and strategic development. Or so it would seem.
Key is the concept of “facts on the ground,” well-known from the policy Israel has used as it moves into the legal grey zone of occupied Palestine territory. International law sees this encroachment as illegal. But it still works if no power moves to stop it. Moves so far to stop it are weak to non-existent. The similarities are fascinating.
Seeing a real need for boosting nationalistic fervor to distract from the slowing economy and a plunging stock market, China has struck on a way to acquire some much-needed positive facts while annoying a major rival and incrementally increasing its maritime footprint. With motivation aplenty, military and economic strategies that call for them, with relatively weak local rivals, and with marine equipment up to the job, she builds land and installs facts where there were none. The South China Sea has become maritime Asia’s version of the Middle East’s “sandbox.” Local rivals tussle and the U.S. Hegemon is not happy.
China has deployed large dredges to pump sand and grow “ground” on scattered sea-level reefs in the South China Sea, indeed building “facts” as quickly as it can. Neighbour nations (with similar territorial claims) scramble to protest but are helpless before a growing Chinese naval presence. Fiery Cross Reef now has the capacity to handle strategic bombers and has landed and departed cargo planes there. Western ally Australia is very concerned with China’s expanding footprint. Michael Thawley, Australia’s secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet says “China is “neither willing nor able” to solve global problems”; hardly the calibre of political leadership a nation with global pretensions requires in a fraught region so important to global commerce.
Indeed this lack of sophistication and disdain for maritime conventions is an acute concern for all trading nations and for other global powers. Laughably impotent, the threatened Philippines has taken the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague (China is a member.) China has brushed off the idea of conforming to any ruling against her expansionist moves (as seems likely to happen.) Other local nations with critical interests in the matter: Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia are observing the proceedings that may emerge in mid-2016. Indonesia is considering filing a like claim with the court as well.
Military scholars in Washington DC are ramping up attention to plans and contingencies, parts of the U. S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific theatre. “Conflict is already underway”, says Paul Giarra (Hudson Institute, June 19, 2015, “Island-Building in the Spratlys: Challenging the International Order in the South China Sea.) Scenarios are being studied and refined as the strategic picture grows clearer, or darker. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, consensus is building that the artificial “grounds” and the “facts” built upon them are clearly military in nature according to statements by authorities such as Admiral H. Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command.
A relic from another age, Fort Jefferson’s masonry carcass weathers the times. Its rationale for being is as aged as ironclad warships and slavery. China’s belligerence is challenging international conventions that grew to rein in precisely this situation, with modern nations generally agreeing arbitration and conventions make for better outcomes. Rebranding nineteenth century imperialism by adopting modern rhetoric and technology to centuries-old strategy for internal and external political goals is no real strategy at all—except annoying neighbours and elevating tensions in a region critically important to every nation bordering the Pacific, in fact the entire twenty-first century world.
- Indonesia says could take China to court over South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- Malaysia joins the stand against China in South China Sea dispute (chinadailymail.com)
- Vietnam launches legal challenge against China’s South China Sea claims (chinadailymail.com)
- Philippines moves fighter jets into South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- Calls to punish China grow (chinadailymail.com)
- Chinese military conducts war games in South China Sea (dailystar.com.lb)
- US Navy commander warns of possible South China Sea arms race (channelnewsasia.com)
- Chinese military threatens BBC reporter flying over disputed South China Sea islands (independent.co.uk)
- Unaccountable China (project-syndicate.org)
- Australian military plane flies over disputed South China Sea (israelnationalnews.com)