While Russian proxies gain more ground in Ukraine, another land grab is rapidly advancing in Asia. And both are signs of America’s dwindling influence over world order.
The Spratly Islands lie in a crowded neck of the South China Sea between Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, each of which legally claims a portion of the archipelago under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Each is entitled to claim jurisdiction over islands and the ocean floor in an economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from its own shoreline.
The Spratlys are reputed to have rich mineral, oil and gas deposits.
So the motive is obvious for why China, which is more than 600 nautical miles distant, also claims the Spratlys — all of them — under an argument originally advanced by the old Republic of China, now Taiwan. (Taiwan also claims it owns the Spratlys.)
Control of the Spratlys would give China control of all the shipping that passes through the South China Sea, which it claims to own in contravention of international law. And it would also make it easier for China to enforce claims to control all of the air space over that sea.
Vietnam and other claimants have offered to submit the matter to international arbitration, but China has refused. Instead, it has from time to time used military force — mostly against Vietnam — to assert its control. It even built an artificial island in the 1990s on Mischief Reef inside the Philippine economic zone.
And as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, over the last two years China has greatly expanded its military presence on Mischief Reef. It has also built new airfields and operated bases on four more reefs within the area of disputed claims: Gaven, Hughes, Fiery Cross and Johnson South, site of a previous deadly military clash between China and Vietnam.
The construction is correctly seen by Western experts as military in nature. James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told the Journal: “Where [China] used to have a few small concrete platforms, it now has full islands with helipads, air strips, harbors and facilities to support large numbers of troops.”
The construction has been undertaken since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Along the way, China has ignored protests from regional nations and the United States, which has rightly called the process “destabilizing.”
Ian Storey, a scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says the buildup “shows that despite recent accommodating rhetoric from Beijing that it seeks to cool tensions in the South China Sea, its policy to assert dominance ... remains fundamentally unchanged.”
Meanwhile, U.S. naval presence in the region has declined over the past decade, and an Australian scholar told the Journal he thinks it is too late for a show of American force at sea to make a difference.
“The U.S. and its allies and partners can only make declaratory protests that China should halt its activities and exercise self-restraint. China will ignore these protests,” said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “The use of U.S. naval warships would be an escalation and carry risks.”
Thus, 70 years of hard-fought, costly and painful U.S. efforts to create order and promote trade along the Asian coast are in danger of being lost.
And China’s regional neighbors aren’t the only nations that should be alarmed by its provocative actions.