China is continuing to press the United States to halt its intelligence gathering off the Chinese coast. For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships. U.S. Navy survey ships operating in international waters often find themselves approached, especially at night, by Chinese fishing boats that deliberately get in the way. In some cases the harassment includes Chinese warships and naval patrol aircraft as well. All this is reminiscent of Cold War incidents, usually involving Russian ships playing "Chicken Of The Sea" with American warships by moving close or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. Earlier in the Cold War, Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The same pattern is playing out with the Chinese, but for the last few years the Chinese have continued to protest this intelligence gathering activity so close (up to 22 kilometers from Chinese territory, an area that is considered “territorial waters”).
The most troublesome intelligence gathering for the Chinese were the oceanic survey vessels. These USNS ships, with mainly civilian crews, use sonar and other sensors to study the ocean floor and collect information on anything else going on down there (including submarines in the area). The Chinese were apparently upset that the U.S. was doing this so close to their new submarine base on Hainan Island. The U.S. has five of these USNS survey ships, and they are all spending a lot of time in the western Pacific. These ships often operate with the obvious cover of carrier aircraft or American warships, in case the Chinese forget the warnings.
All of the harassment is of U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters. International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. Moreover, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has claims that USNS ships are conducting illegal espionage. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.
In July 2012, China tried a new strategy by declaring that most of the 3.5 million square kilometers South China Sea had become Sansha, the latest Chinese city. The area China claims as part of Sansha comprises over two million square kilometers of largely open ocean and a few hundred tiny islands and reefs, many of which are only above water during low tide. Sansha is administered from one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island). The U.S. government responded by asking that China obey international law regarding territorial waters and the EEZ. In response to the American reminder, the Chinese called the U.S. a troublemaker. China has not backed down but it has not become aggressive again.
All this is not some sudden Chinese effort to extend its control over large ocean areas. For over three decades China has been carrying out a long-term strategy that involves first leaving buoys (for navigation purposes, to assist Chinese fishermen) in the disputed water, followed by temporary shelters (again, for the Chinese fishermen) on islets or reefs that are above water but otherwise uninhabited. If none of the other claimants to this piece of ocean remove the buoys or shelters, China builds a more permanent structure “to aid passing Chinese fishermen.” This shelter will be staffed by military personnel who will, of course, have radio, radar, and a few weapons. If no one attacks this mini-base China will expand it and warn anyone in the area that the base is Chinese territory and any attempts to remove it will be seen as an act of war. The Vietnamese tried to get physical against these Chinese bases in 1974 and 1988 and were defeated both times in brief but brutal air and sea battles. The Chinese will fight, especially if they are certain of victory.
In 1995, China built one of these mini-bases 114 kilometers from the Filipino island of Palawan on Mischief Reef. Earlier buoys and a temporary structure had been removed by Filipino sailors. But in 1995, while the Philippines had suspended air and naval patrols of the area because of a nearby typhoon (Pacific hurricane), the Chinese rushed in and built a permanent base, on stilts, on the reef. China told the Philippines they would defend this one and the Philippines found that their American ally was reluctant to go to war over a small structure on stilts on Mischief Reef. Four years later the Chinese expanded the Mischief Reef stilt structure, and now it was obviously a military base. The Philippines protested and China ignored that. Now the Philippines is drilling for oil off Palawan and China is using this "base" as the basis for declaring the drilling operations illegal. China has threatened to use force against oil companies that dare drill in their territorial waters without permission. This has stalled the Philippines from exploiting natural resources in coastal waters that are much closer to the Philippines than China and have, for centuries, been generally recognized as Filipino.
This is part of a strategy based on the ancient principle that, when it comes to real estate, "possession is 9/10ths of the law." It's the law of the jungle because all the claimants are armed and making it clear that, at some point down the road, force will be used to enforce claims. With the establishment of Sansha City, China is saying the next time anyone does anything China does not like within the city limits it could be war, because a government has to defend its sovereign territory.
Currently Woody Island has a permanent population of about a thousand people, who have to be supplied (even with water) at great expense from the Chinese mainland. Most are military and police personnel (who serve on the island for two years) and civilian officials (who serve six month tours). There is a small fishing community with facilities for fishing boats to tie up and the crews to come ashore for some rest. There are also some tourist attractions. Woody Island is about 340 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island), thus within China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The expense of maintaining Sansha is a minor cost when you consider that this move makes many disputed islands, atolls, and reefs officially part of China. As a "city" Sansha requires a larger military garrison, and the Chinese have talked of sending several thousand troops, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons, warships, and aircraft. So far this force has not arrived. China has been expanding military facilities on these tiny islands for several years. Among the more notable additions were an expanded electronic monitoring facility and a lengthened runway on Woody Island, now long enough to support Su-30 fighters. Several large fuel tanks have also been built, indicating an intention to base warplanes there. Eventually, over 3,000 civilian and military personnel may be stationed in Sansha.
The Paracel Islands are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as unoccupied islets and reefs throughout the South China Sea, including many within the Filipino EEZ. China is also concerned about the Spratlys, a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel. China claims them all but occupies only 8. Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan 1.
Taiwan built a 1,150 meter long and 30 meter wide air strip on Itu Aba, called Taiping Island by the Taiwanese. Ita Aba is one of the largest of Spratly Islands, at about 120 acres (489,600 square meters). It has been in Taiwanese hands since the mid-1950s, and has largely been used as a way station for fishermen. The island is also claimed by the Vietnamese, who call it Thai Binh. Taiwan has long maintained a small military presence on the island and the air strip is meant to cement that control. Protests were made by Vietnam, which controls the largest group of islands, and the Philippines, which also claims Itu Aba island. The Vietnamese earlier refurbished an old South Vietnamese airstrip on Big Spratly Island.
In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a naval battle off the Spratly islands. The Chinese victory, in which a Chinese warship sank a Vietnamese transport carrying troops headed for one of the disputed islands, was followed by Chinese troops establishing garrisons on some of the islands. In 1992, Chinese marines landed on Da Lac reef, in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, Chinese marines occupied Mischief Reef, which was claimed by the Philippines. Now China can claim that many non-Chinese bases on disputed islands are illegal, as they fall within the city limits of Sansha. China's neighbors are looking to the United States to deal with the local bully, and so far the Americans have been reluctant to get that involved, in part because China is making it difficult to just keep an eye on the area.