Beijing claims that almost the entire South China Sea, rich in energy resources with $5 trillion in shipping passing through it annually, has historically belonged to China and will always be so. These claims have angered neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and their citizens as tensions have slowly built over recent years.
In 2014, China started building artificial islands and expanding land in the Spratly’s Fiery Cross Reef. As of July 2, 2015, the Chinese government is allegedly creating a 10,000 foot runway, long enough to handle all types of aircraft. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims that the runway is for civilian aircraft and is “satisfying the need of necessary military defense.” Helipads and satellite communication antennas are also being added to the islands, likely for military purposes.
The U.S. media has been filled with updates of Chinese land reclamation, and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt” to the practice. However, Chinese media has scarcely included such reports. The lack of reporting on this issue aligns with the attitude of a Chinese defense official, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of Foreign Affairs Office of China’s National Defense Ministry, who dismissed concerns over militarization as “incomplete and without jurisprudential evidence.”
So why has China been heavily investing in its military and suddenly began an aggressive pursuit of territorial claims? Some argue that Beijing hopes to maintain claim to the rich energy resources and plentiful fisheries of the South China Sea. However, Michael Frodl, Founder of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, points out that China gets no economic gain from maintaining a high-level security patrol of these islands; it would be comparatively cheaper for China to continue to import oil from the Middle East and Africa and buy fish directly from its southern neighbors. Others argue that this aggressiveness may be part of a long-term tactic to expand the Chinese military further into the Pacific to attack Taiwan and threaten the U.S. But cross-strait relations are peaceful and China-U.S. relations are not bad, either. The government in Beijing has no reason to seek violent conflict with neighboring countries and trade partners.
As a peaceful Chinese citizen, I hope that China is building artificial islands and expanding its military purely for its people and for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rightful claim to authority in China. The CCP bases its claim to rule mainly on economic growth and territorial control. Starting in elementary school, students are taught Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the peripheral islands are an essential part of the Chinese identity. They are told that during a period of weakness in history, enemies from the West and Japan took advantage of the corrupt Qing dynasty and stole the islands from Beijing. Now, as China’s miraculous economic growth nears its end, perhaps the CCP has turned towards a different strategy to showcase its capability and authority over its people.
Of course, in a mostly authoritarian (if not recently neo-totalitarian) country, no one knows what the government has in mind. The CCP claims to embody the will of all Chinese, but it is nearly impossible for 1.4 billion Chinese to agree on one issue. The Chinese people see military expansion as a sign of their strong nation. In contrast, neighbors see enlargement as a threat to everyday life. Perhaps the government has another motive altogether. In the end, as Secretary Carter said, “We all know there’s no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.” Economic trade and the delicate state of world peace are more important right now than a handful of islands. We will just have to see which side of this conflict is more stubborn and which will cave and compromise.
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