INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by David ArchibaldNews Weekly
China's sandcastles give its neighbours the jitters
, June 20, 2015
For the past nine months just about every ocean-going dredge in China has been deployed to island-building in the Spratly Islands just west of Palawan in the Philippines.
Harbours have been carved out of the coral and forts are now rising next to them. At least one airfield has been completed so far, on Fiery Cross Reef, and the reclamation on Subi Reef is large enough to accommodate a second one. The forts are enormous, covering up to nine hectares each. They are forts because they all come with four flak towers standing apart from the corners of the buildings. This gives each flak tower a 270-degree field of fire.
The airfield on Fiery Cross Reef will give China the ability to enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. To what end?
China’s claim over the South China Sea extends down to 4 degrees north of the equator. China claims not only all the reefs, islands and submerged banks but the sea as well – all as sacred Chinese territory.
The claim neatly divides East Asia. Any country wanting to send a ship or an aircraft through it will have to ask China’s permission first. Military craft won’t be allowed to cross at all. If enforced, for anyone not Chinese in Asia it will be an enormous inconvenience and an enormous loss of face.
The Chinese are building
extensively on the Spratly Islands.
That is the point of the exercise. Vietnam will be the worst affected. China intends to bottle up the Vietnamese Navy and fishing fleets to within 80 kilometres of the Vietnamese coastline, which is 1,600 kilometres long, facing the South China Sea.
To paraphrase George Orwell, the future that China is working towards is one in which they have their boot stamping on the Vietnamese face – forever. They are not just picking on the Vietnamese. Everyone else will get the same treatment and Asia will become a much darker place with enormous resentment towards China.
Now that China under the direction of President Xi Jinping has committed to its base-building in the Spratlys, it can’t cease and desist as the United States has asked it to without a loss of face. So that is not going to happen. But China being allowed to close off the South China Sea as a private lake is too much of an accommodation to make to the Chinese ego. War in the region is no longer a remote prospect. Based on past Chinese practice in the Korean War and the war with Vietnam in 1979, there is likely to be an escalation of rhetoric as the year passes, culminating in a surprise attack.
In the meantime, the United States will send ships and aircraft through the South China Sea, but China is unlikely to take the bait until their Spratly bases are fully stocked and systems operating. Our Defence Department has flagged sending an Australian P-3 Orion maritime surveillance plane through the Spratlys to demonstrate freedom of navigation. China might happily shoot down an unarmed Australian plane because that would not necessarily trigger war with the United States.
Apart from this base-building China has been trying to winkle Australia out of its defence treaties with Japan and the United States.
Moreover, we have a tiny army with almost no armour or artillery. Singapore, with a quarter our population, has four times as many tanks. Indonesia has twice as many. In per-capita terms, Singapore has 20 times the amount of 155mm artillery that we do. What do the Singaporeans know that we don’t know? Probably that this is a dangerous neighbourhood now.
We have no stocks of transport fuels. China has just about filled a 700 million-barrel strategic oil reserve. We sold off our gold holdings almost 20 years ago, so let’s hope that someone will take paper currency for emergency military supplies. Hope is what we have most of.
David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014).