After more than a decade of tranquil and cordial relations with its neighbours, China’s relentless push across adjacent waters has rattled smaller Asian countries like never before.
Amid an era of (state-constructed) popular nationalism and rapidly expanding military capabilities, a confident Beijing is pursuing its age-old maritime ambitions with a vengeance.
Since 2010, long-dormant disputes in the South and East China seas have been transformed into a high stakes battle for territorial integrity between a resurgent China, on one hand, and perturbed peripheral neighbours, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, among others, on the other.
Given the United States’ treaty alliances with two of China’s fiercest rival claimants, the Philippines and Japan, the global superpower has also been drawn into what are fundamentally bilateral disputes.
But Washington is also concerned with emerging threats to “freedom of navigation” in international waters, such as the South China Sea, an artery of global trade and a critical sea line of communication for US naval forces.
Under the “Pivot to Asia” strategy, Washington has injected itself right into the heart of the maritime disputes, gradually transforming regional territorial spats into a broader strategic rivalry for leadership in the Asia-Pacific theatre.
Creating facts on the water
For China, instead of constraining its ambitions, the Asian powerhouse seems to have become even more determined to win the fierce scramble for disputed islands, hydrocarbon and fisheries resources, and waters across the area.
Leveraging its military muscle, China has been creating facts on the waters.
Latest satellite imagery, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reveals the astonishing pace, scale, and technological sophistication of China’s construction activities across the South China Sea.
In less than two years, China has reclaimed more than 810 hectares of land across the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea, an area that overlaps with the 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and continental shelves of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
Though not a sovereign nation, Taiwan happens to occupy the biggest naturally formed feature, the Itu Aba Island, in the area.
China’s southernmost province, Hainan, is situated more than 600 nautical miles away, but Beijing claims “inherent and indisputable” sovereignty over the area based on vaguely explained concepts of “historical rights”, which leading legal scholars dismiss as nothing more than a piece of propaganda.
China’s sprawling network
For a long time, China trailed other claimant states, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, which controlled a greater number of features in the Spratlys and ambitiously built airstrips and advanced military facilities in the area.
The two naturally formed islands, Itu Aba and Thitu, have been controlled by Taiwan and the Philippines, respectively.
China hasn’t only managed to catch up with its smaller neighbours, but it has rapidly established a sprawling network of military and civilian structures on a whole host of artificially created islands in the area, which easily dwarf those of rival claimant states.
China’s airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, a contested feature that has been artificially expanded by 11 times over, is almost three times longer (3,000m) than the second biggest runway in Malaysia’s Swallow Reef (1,368m).
Deploying state-of-the-art geoengineering, China has transformed rocks, atolls, and low-tide elevations into humongous islands capable of hosting the largest vessels and aircrafts.
Backed by expanding paramilitary patrol and the People’s Liberation Army colossus, China has gradually come to dominate a growing portion of the South China Sea, from the Paracels in the north to the Spratlys in the south.
Yet, China’s territorial assertiveness isn’t only confined to the South China Sea.
Since 2010, China has stepped up its maritime and aerial patrols close to the shores of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands (known as the Diaoyu islands in Chinese) in the East China Sea, while a growing frequency of skirmishes between Chinese fishermen and South Korea coastguard forces has also hit the Yellow Sea.
Alarmed by China’s maritime assertiveness, the Japanese leadership is desperately revisiting the country’s pacifist foreign policy.
In Tokyo, the Shinzo Abe administration has ended a decade of stagnant military spending, revitalised security ties with Washington and other regional allies (eg: Australia, India, and the Philippines), and has begun exploring various measures to not only defend its territories in the East China Sea, but to also partake in joint patrols against China in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, which lost the Scarborough Shoal to China after a dangerous naval standoff in mid-2012, has upgraded security ties with the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam, while going so far as taking China to an arbitration court at The Hague.
Beijing’s anxious neighbours are particularly relying on Washington to push back against China’s rising power.
Though neutral on the sovereignty disputes in the area, the US worried over the prospect of a Beijing dominion in the area. It’s no wonder then that in recent months, the US has deployed a growing number of surveillance aircrafts and vessels close to Chinese-controlled features in the Spratlys.
Even historically neutral countries like Singapore and Indonesia have begun to speak out, albeit cryptically, against China’s massive reclamation activities and muscular policy in adjacent waters.
A growing number of countries across the region, including Vietnam, have quietly welcomed the expansion of the US’ military footprint in the area.
Singapore has welcomed the permanent stationing of two American littoral combat ships on its shores, while Indonesia has sought more regular joint naval patrols with Washington.
Ultimately, however, the disputes will have to be resolved through robust and creative diplomacy, not military confrontation.
And this is why the world will carefully watch the upcoming summit between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, hoping the two superpowers will find a workable understanding to avoid war in one of the world’s most dynamic and prosperous regions. (Al Jazeera)