THE PRC’S ONGOING MILITARIZATION OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
March 1, 2016
On February 27, the White House issued a call for Chinese President Xi Jinping to extend China’s pledge not to militarize the islands in the South China Sea. During a state visit to the U.S. last September, President Xi pledged not to militarize the Spratly archipelago, which is claimed by both the Philippines and Beijing. Since then, however, U.S. officials have reported increased militarization of the islands, specifically the development of airstrips.
The significance of these small islands 500 miles off the coast of the Chinese mainland cannot be overstated. The PRC has constructed seven new islands on what were previously reefs, and built military structures and aircraft runaways. Although the new islands are very small and unable to support a sustained large military presence, they will serve to fortify Chinese naval patrol of the South China Sea that is home to large, lucrative fisheries and potential oil and gas reserves. According to U.S. Department of Energy estimates, the area potentially houses over 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The South China Sea is also one of the most important global trade routes, with over $5 million in trade goods passing through those waters each year. For these reasons, the recent island building project and increased militarization of existing islands is a major point of contention in the Sino-U.S. relationship.
In October 2015, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near the Spratly Islands, where China has been using dredgers to create an artificial island chain. The PRC asserts that these reclaimed islands are part of its territory, and as such, the 12 nautical miles surrounding the islands should be considered Chinese waters. The U.S., however, insists that the islands are illegitimate, and the surrounding waters are international waters. Because of this, the U.S. did not consult with China before sailing near the islands and maintained that this action is simply a method of asserting the right to freedom of navigation of the seas. The PRC, on the other hand, perceived this as a deliberate act of provocation.
Beijing is currently facing an arbitration case filed by the Philippines in The Hague. China has claims over almost the entire South China Sea, although many of those claims are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries. The Philippines has repeatedly asked China to abide by the forthcoming ruling, especially since the PRC has already ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea on which the case is based. Beijing, however, continues to insist that all disputes should be settled through mediation and bilateral talks rather than legal arbitration.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the U.S. is bound to the Philippines in a mutual defense treaty.
For more information on this topic, please visit the following links:
U.S. Energy Information Administration – http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=10651
Compiled and edited by Rachel E. Peniston