Leadership: China Fortifies Its Island Empire

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October 16, 2014: Chinese construction efforts on Woody Island (one of the disputed Paracel Islands) continue as China recently announced the completion of a 2,000 meter long air strip. This is long enough to support warplanes and work continues on facilities adjacent to the air strip, apparently to support warplanes based on the tiny island. Earlier a school building was completed. This is being used for the 40 children of officials and their families stationed there. The workers continue construction of facilities for the capital of Sansha, a new Chinese municipality (city). Sansha is actually Woody Island and dozens of smaller bits of land (some of them shoals that are under water all the time) in the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south. In fact, the new "city" lays claim to two million square kilometers of open sea (57 percent of the South China Sea).

All this began in July 2012 when China declared that most of the 3.5 million square kilometers South China Sea had become Sansha, which is administered from Woody Island. The U.S. government responded by asking that China obey international law regarding territorial waters. In response the Chinese called the U.S. a troublemaker. China has not backed down, but did not become aggressive again until November when China claimed control over large areas of international air space via an expanded ADIZ (air defense identification zone). China wants all military and commercial aircraft in these new ADIZs to ask permission from China before entering.  Local nations responded by sending in military aircraft without telling China, but warning their commercial aircraft operators to cooperate because it is considered impractical to provide military air cover for all the commercial traffic. China sees this as a victory, despite the obvious intention of other nations to continue sending military aircraft through the ADIZ unannounced and despite whatever threats China makes. In response to that China has begun running combat air patrols through the ADIZ and apparently intends to try to intimidate some of the smaller countries defying the ADIZ.

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. All of this could end badly, with a major war no one wants. That’s how these things develop.

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. The nations bordering the South China Sea, and the new city of Sansha, are creating alliances and trying to persuade the United States to lend some military, or at least diplomatic, support to opposing an increasingly aggressive China. This aggression is popular inside China, where the government has increasingly been playing the nationalist card. All Chinese know their recent history. In the 19th century the corrupt and inept imperial government lost control of much of China (Hong Kong, Manchuria, and so on) to better armed and aggressive foreigners. Then the communists took control over 60 years ago and began to win China some respect. Now China is asserting its ancient claims on adjacent areas, like the South China Sea. But those ancient claims also include control of Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and much of the Russian Far East. Asserting ancient claims is how the two World Wars began.

 


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