China Is Slowly Turning the South China Sea Into Its Own Territory

Image: a Chengdu J-10 fighter. Flickr/mxiong. CC BY 2.0.

What can the U.S. and its allies do about it? 

"We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated and we will not be isolated," Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, exclaimed during the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. It was a direct riposte to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s earlier speech at the same event, where he warned China against “self-isolation” due to its aggressive maneuvers in adjacent waters. Not short of bravado, the Chinese admiral went so far as stating Beijing does not "make or fear trouble" against the "provocations of certain countries for their own selfish interests." The speech coincided with reports of China’s back-to-back (unsafe) interception of American surveillance missions in the South China Sea.

Four centuries after the publication of British jurist John Selden’s "The Closed Sea," which argued for exclusive sovereign control of international waters, China is inching closer to transforming the South China Sea—the world’s most important waterway, which handles up to a third of global maritime commerce, four times as much energy transport as the Suez canal, and more than a tenth of global fisheries stock—into a virtual domestic lake. China’s control of the Paracel chain of islands is a fait accompli, while the Pratas chain of islands are under the administration of what Beijing considers as a renegade province, Taiwan, which will be eventually reincorporated into a Greater China. In the last two years or so, China has reclaimed 3200 acres (1,295 hectares) of land to build gigantic artificial islands in Spratly chain of islands, giving birth to a sprawling network of civilian and military installations across the disputed waters. Soon, China may be in a position to establish an “exclusion zone” in the area, imperiling freedom of overflight and navigation for regional and external military forces in the area.

Standing next to a top Vietnamese defense official, Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh, he warned that “some countries are expanding their invasion of the South China Sea”—most likely in reference to allegations that Vietnam has also engaged in, albeit on a far smaller scale, its own reclamation activities in the area in recent years. Admiral Sun, however, reserved his most pugnacious rhetoric for one Southeast Asian country, the Philippines, which has dared to take its giant neighbor to international court over the maritime disputes.

Starting off on a relatively conciliatory note, where he proudly enumerated China’s numerous contributions to global security and development, the Chinese admiral suddenly shifted to a high-pitch, lambasting Manila for supposedly breaching bilateral agreements with China and denying its rights in the disputed waters. He warned the Philippines and other likeminded countries that “Chinese people believe in truth, not heresy” and that “belligerence doesn’t make peace”. Quite astonishingly, he accused the Philippines of becoming “the first country to invade the South China Sea”, recounting how he internalized this humiliating event during his younger years as a serviceman.