China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters
China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters

Many people in America and around the world may disapprove of Donald Trump’s posture on a wide range of domestic and foreign issues, but perhaps few can disagree with his view on China’s military posturing in the South China Sea.

Tweeting on December 4, the then president-elect accused China of building “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”

In a recent interview with Reuters, not only did he reiterate Chinese militarization in the area, but also criticized his predecessor for allowing such an activity to happen. He told the international news agency, “Many things took place [under the Obama administration] that should not have been allowed. One of them is [Beijing’s] building of a massive, massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”

His comments are endorsed and expanded by many of his top aides.

During his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, likened Beijing’s construction and militarization of islands in the area to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and called China’s territorial and military expansion illegal and “extremely worrisome.” The former ExxonMobil boss added that the Obama government had failed to deal with the problem, saying such a failure “has allowed [China] to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”

Last November, two key Trump advisors, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, pointed out that China has built massive artificial islands in the South China Sea “with very limited American response.” They also accused the Obama administration of “pointedly” refusing to intervene in 2012 when China “brazenly” seized the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal.

At a security forum in 2015, Admiral Harry Harris noted: “While Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also conducted land reclamation in the South China Sea, their total — approximately 100 acres over 45 years — is dwarfed by the size, scope and scale of China’s massive buildup.”

According to the commander of US Pacific Command, “in only 18 months, China has reclaimed almost 3,000 acres.”

Subi Reef

The extent and gravity of China’s expansionism has been recently raised by two unnamed US officials, who told Reuters that Beijing has nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea apparently intended to house surface-to-air missiles.

China always vehemently rejects any criticism of its behavior – stating that it has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters”; that its construction activities are “normal” and that its deployment of defense facilities is “necessary” and “appropriate,” or that what it is doing in the area is only “exercising a right bestowed by international law to sovereign states.”

But it hardly seems to convince anybody.

study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Australia’s Strategic Forum, published late last year, underlined China’s increased expansion and militarization in the South China Sea, especially since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

According to the study, by pushing “through boundaries of international law and norms of international behavior, and [taking] much higher risks than its Western counterparts,” the Asian power is “now close to claiming effective sovereignty over” the strategic waterway and has installed “military facilities on several newly created islands” in the area.

Moreover, to “prepare the global space for [its territorial and military] expansionism,” the communist-ruled country, described as “a rising revisionist state” by this joint research, has carried out “an extensive program of psychological warfare.”

Mischief Reef

In July 2016, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal ruled that China’s  historical claims to waters within its so-called “nine-dash line,” which covers most of the South China Sea, has “no legal basis” in international law.

It also found that “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone [EEZ]” by conducting illegal activities, such as “constructing artificial islands” in its EEZ and that its “recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands was incompatible with the obligations on a state during dispute resolution proceedings.”

In fact, the five-judge tribunal upheld virtually all of the Philippines’ claims against China.

As reported by regional and international media, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said last week that China’s militarization of its man-made islands is “very unsettling.” The foreign ministers of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) countries unanimously expressed concern over China’s installation of weapons systems in the South China Sea at the recent Asean meeting in Philippines.

Though, as usual, Chinese officials and media quickly criticized such remarks, Yasay’s comments highlighted anxiety over Beijing’s recent moves among regional countries.

Indeed, China’s maritime behavior is – or should be – a real concern for not only the region but also the US. If its territorial and military expansion continues at the recent rate without any meaningful opposition from the US and other concerned countries, sooner or later, China will fully control the area, which is, besides its abundance in natural resources, one of the world’s most commercially and strategically vital waterways

Hughes Reef

China has already effectively controlled the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. It sent fighter jets to and  installed surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and a radar system on Woody Island, the Paracels’ largest atoll. Should it complete the deployment of SAMs, radar sites and other defense facilities on its already man-made bases in the Spratlys, and specially carry out reclamation and similar installations on Scarborough Shoal – China will establish effective control of both open sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.

At a ministerial meeting of the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

From the US perspective, Clinton’s then view, which infuriated China, but delighted many regional countries concerned about Beijing’s maritime aggressiveness, remains true. If the South China Sea is under China’s complete control, America will no longer be able to sail, fly and operate freely in and above the international waters of this strategic sea. Consequently, its regional influence will be weakened and its power threatened.

Beijing always warns the US and other non-South China Sea nations, notably Japan and Australia, its two key regional allies, to stay out of the dispute. A reason for this is that, without the involvement of these external powers, China finds it much easier to deal with its smaller and weaker neighbors. Another – if not the fundamental – reason behind Beijing’s strategy, as noted by the report of the CSBA and the Strategic Forum, “is to push Western forces and strategic influence out of the South China Sea.” It has so far been significantly successful on both fronts.

All in all, Mr Trump and his advisors have rightly described China’s land reclamation, facility construction and defense installation in the South China Sea. Their concerns over Beijing’s territorial and military expansion are legitimate. They are also probably right to blame the Obama administration for Chinese adventure.

The crucial question is what the Trump administration can or should do to stop or deter such assertive and aggressive behavior.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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