HO CHI MINH CITY – Since late 2013, China has been engaged in the frenzied creation of artificial islands and the militarization of the South China Sea. This amounts to an alarming quest for control over a strategically crucial corridor through which $5.3 trillion in trade flows each year. But what is even more shocking – not to mention dangerous – is that China has incurred no international costs for its behavior.
Of course, the international community has a lot on its plate nowadays, not least a massive refugee crisis fueled by chaos in the Middle East. But the reality is that, as long as China feels free to maneuver without consequence, it will continue to do so, fueling tensions with its neighbors that could easily turn into all-out conflict, derailing Asia’s rise.
A key component of China’s strategy in the South China Sea is the dredging of low-tide elevations to make small islands, including in areas that, as China’s deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs, Liu Zhenmin, recently acknowledged, “are far from the Chinese mainland.” In China’s view, that distance makes it “necessary” to build “military facilities” on the islands. And, indeed, three of the seven newly constructed islets include airfields, from which Chinese warplanes could challenge the US Navy’s ability to operate unhindered in the region.
By militarizing the South China Sea, China is seeking to establish a de facto Air Defense Identification Zone like the one that it formally – and unilaterally – declared in 2013 in the East China Sea, where it claims islands that it does not control. China knows that, under international law, its claim to sovereignty over virtually all of the resource-endowed South China Sea, based on an “historic right,” is weak; that is why it has opposed international adjudication. Instead, it is trying to secure “effective control” – which, under international law, enhances significantly the legitimacy of a country’s territorial claim – just as it has done in the Himalayas and elsewhere.