Leadership: Can't We All Just Obey China?


August 7, 2012: China recently declared that most of the 3.5 million square kilometers South China Sea had become Sansha, the latest Chinese city. The area China claims is within the city limits 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. China currently claims South China Sea areas close to neighboring nations, except for areas about 22 kilometers from the coast. International law gives all nations control over fishing and oil drilling 380 kilometers off their coasts. China refuses to obey this rule (which it had once agreed to). In response to the American reminder, the Chinese called the U.S. a trouble maker. China is not backing down.

For over three decades China has been using a gradual strategy that involves first leaving buoys (for navigation purposes, to assist Chinese fishermen), 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 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 Chinese 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 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 and 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, which is expected to arrive soon in the form of several thousand troops, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons, warships, and aircraft. The Paracel Islands are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. 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 will be stationed in Sansha. This strengthens claims on unoccupied islets and reefs, including many within the Filipino EEZ.

China is also concerned about the nearby 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 one.

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.





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