Andrew Browne – The Wall Street Journal. – Tuesday
SHANGHAI—Armed only with a set of revolving teeth, the Tian Jing Hao, Asia’s largest dredger, has pulled off a stunning naval upset.
Under the noses of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, this Chinese vessel led a civilian armada that built almost 3,000 acres of land atop submerged reefs in the Spratly Islands, altering a strategic balance that has held since the great naval battles of World War II established U.S. primacy in the Western Pacific.
The construction began shortly after the Philippines challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by filing a case at a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. Now, on the eve of a legal verdict, China has achieved its objective: a new geography in the world’s busiest commercial waterway where China’s claims overlap with those of five neighbors, also including Vietnam and Malaysia.
However the five judges decide the case, China has permanently altered facts on the ground in its favor.
The seven Spratly outcrops on which it has built runways, docks, radar and other facilities give China the ability to project new military force in its contest with America for regional mastery.
Possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law. And China’s island-building may not have ended. The Pentagon fears that Chinese dredgers might be planning a fresh round of construction on Scarborough Shoal that it effectively seized from the Philippines in 2012, which would give the People’s Liberation Army a jumping-off point just 140 miles from Manila. It’s bracing, too, for China to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the entire South China Sea, which China could enforce from its artificial islands. China has pledged to ignore the tribunal’s findings.
China’s land reclamation won’t change the legal case in The Hague; semisubmerged reefs don’t become islands even if you build on them. Nevertheless, slow-moving Chinese dredgers have outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful navy. China’s political leaders calculated, correctly, that America wouldn’t risk war over a bunch of uninhabited rocks and reefs to stop them.
Yet what the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., has termed China’s “Great Wall of Sand” has raised the risk of future conflicts.
A regional arms race is under way. China’s smaller neighbors feel bullied and threatened by what’s become the sharp end of Beijing’s diplomacy: powerful cutters attached to the dredgers that have unleashed environmental devastation, hacking to bits pristine coral and threatening marine life such as the migratory yellowfin and skipjack tuna.
Their resentments are only partially soothed by the softer side of China’s regional engagement—hundreds of billions of dollars it has earmarked for infrastructure investment.
Moreover, China’s moves to balloon specks of coral into military-capable platforms have helped spawn new regional networks aimed at blunting Chinese advances.
On Tuesday, China responded angrily to a declaration by foreign ministers of the Group of Seven urging a halt to “intimidating, coercive or provocative actions” in the South China Sea and East China Sea.”
In another sign of how Chinese assertiveness is bringing together old wartime adversaries, this week two Japanese warships and a submarine are visiting the Philippines naval base of Subic Bay, which looks out toward the Spratlys, as thousands of American, Australian and Philippine forces conduct drills to prepare for potential crises.
The so-called “cutter suction dredgers”—the debris they create is vacuumed up underwater and showered onto the reefs through long pipes—have created a dilemma for U.S. President Barack Obama.
He thinks of himself as a child of the Pacific, born in Hawaii and partly raised in Indonesia, and the “pivot” to Asia has been his signature foreign-policy move. Yet he’s opted for restraint. Confronting China in the Spratlys by, for instance, trying to chase away the dredgers and their naval protection not only risks war but could derail cooperation with Beijing on crucial issues like climate change or North Korea.
White House caution, though, has left U.S. naval commanders frustrated. Belatedly, they’ve got the political go-ahead to sail warships close to the man-made islands in so-called “Freedom of Navigation” exercises.
These sail-by missions, however, won’t stop the rapid militarization of a sea that carries $5 trillion in global commerce each year. China has recently positioned surface-to-air missile batteries on the Paracels, another set of South China Sea islands. Beijing, in turn, accuses the U.S. of militarizing the region with its patrols.