By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Correspondent for In Homeland Security
China has never forgotten that all great powers in modern history employed a solid navy tied to their commercial exploits. Beijing is now expanding its maritime reach throughout the South China Sea. One objective to greater strategic control of the sea in the past few months has been the construction of artificial islands that would act as de facto territories and military bases. Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., and many other experts, are concerned that China is converting the underwater Fiery Cross Reef into the largest artificial island in the Spratly archipelago. Construction is done at a rapid pace by pouring sand and cement over the existing coral reef walls. Admiral Harris has dubbed this the as the “Great Wall of Sand.”
But even if this is a “Great Wall of Sand,” should America fear a transition for the worse? In many ways, yes. It is closer to a stake in the waters than a wall. The Spratly’s are closer to several other states in the dispute than to mainland China and the UNCLOS states that uninhabited islands cannot be economic exclusive zones. But considering china’s history with great walls, they typically mean insular defense. This barrier reef approach is based on a soft expansive sea forward initiative. Naturally, Beijing wants to claim what is theirs; even in the outrageous stretch to the distant Spratly Islands, which are closer to the Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The U.S. condemned Japanese actions as it nationalized the Diao Yu/Senkaku Islands but did nothing. China has not followed this direct course of action only because of U.S.-Japanese and other ally military threats to retake occupied territory. Nevertheless, while this was a tactical success to alter Chinese activities, Beijing was enraged by containment through mounting warships around “their” seas and the situation for them necessitated a gradual squatter settler approach, mixed with diplomacy, information and financial levels of statecraft. Beijing’s first salvo was actually in 2012, with Sansha; making it a prefecture of Hainan Province and reasserting control of the Parcel Islands and projecting political dominion to through the Spratlys further southeast. The Philippines already have them under the MIMAROPA provinces. Some of these isles already have military airfields or are used by their militaries, such as the Republic of China air base on Taiping Island. These can resemble something like permanent sandbar aircraft carriers. China obviously wants their own too.
In 2014, China constructed an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast that received a lot of attention from anti-China communities in Vietnam. The resolution to this saw military action from a livid Vietnamese coast guard, and international pressure was most effective in compelling China to withdraw and remove the oil rig back into Chinese waters. This was another major attempt to move permanent structures into disputed territory. It may not be so easy to defeat the third attempt or the fourth or so on.
China feels as though it is making up for what it believes is lost time and stretching to the boundaries of its Nine Dotted Line. America might have to counter the latest action through a collective mirror response. This means that every interested party is willing to accept partial control over the Spratlys and figuratively draw a line in the sand; specifically, build artificial islands of their own, right next to China’s illicit Spratly project. But their biggest enemy is greed—second only to disunity. Everyone wants the islands but China has the means and the will to take them gradually and permanently.
Beijing has also been busy at meticulously dividing the long standing loyalties of Europe, Australia and islands states and wresting them from the U.S. and Japanese sphere. Why risk war from the view of these other states when China can pay more now or offer a more prosperous future? America must act fast if it wishes to counter and rebalance the status quo. Splitting the Spratlys is better than losing them completely or going to war over them in the future. It might also form a regional treaty with all states involved that governs the islands and ensures the free navigation of the South China Sea.
For a while, China was caught on camera as the malevolent giant, only to be overshadowed by the North Korean menace. Several years ago it was using more and more aggressive approaches to the issue of maritime disputes and headstrong regional influence. Now, Beijing has taken a page from the Western playbook to power. It has learned that money is power, and it is also good to make friends. The only question is: Has China learned that it is better to really be the good guy and not just act like the good guy on the surface?
Does China intend to be a more benign power than the U.S.? That seems doubtful, and China will have much to prove if the theory of inevitable Chinese supremacy is correct. Indeed, the world is a stage, as far as international relations are concerned. Good acting is often more powerful than coercive diplomacy or navigating the seas brazenly, carrying a big stick. The effective mastery of soft power, institution building—the promise of something truly new and better—has a strong appeal. That appeal is a form of attracting or pulling power. That is exactly what China is doing by reaching out to other state actors around the world to participate in its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); a major strategy of many more to come in an overhauled statecraft of finance, information, image and alliance building.
After the construction of an artificial island, a large number of willing settlers is necessary—most likely fishermen and eventually oil companies and others. In securing vital national resources and strategic interests in the South China Sea, food and energy security are the first priority, and second is the protection of the oil and shipping lanes. Secondary defensive and denial security are an eventual phase into a blue water navy.