An island is a sacred thing. These outcrops of land generally conjure images of peace and seclusion, of white sandy beaches and dark woods surrounded by the ceaseless surf of the sea. They fill the minds of men with a love of secret things, of unexplored little worlds, drifting in the great oceans that cover our planet like a shroud. Man has often made his home on them, built temples to his gods on their flanks and fled to them in times of distress and disaster, but what happens when these quiet havens are profaned by man and transformed into weapons of war?
In the South China Sea, between the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines, the Chinese have, since 2013, built four new islands on the reefs that make up the Spratly Archipelago. These island-reefs still bear the stamp of romance, with such names as Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, but they have long since been robbed of their beauty. Man and machine are swiftly transforming them from coral and sandbar into fully integrated weapons platforms complete with runways, docks and barracks — all designed with one purpose in mind: to challenge US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. Great channels have been gouged through the ancient corals to allow for the passage of large ships; the dredgers and cement haulers that are building the foundations of the Chinese occupation. Subi and Mischief Reef are both coral atolls — delicate web-like traceries of ancient polyp colonies that lie tantalisingly close to the surface of the emerald sea — but they are now virtually unrecognisable, their splendour ravaged by the destructive power of the Chinese construction industry.
Under the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) the construction of these largely artificial islands does not create sovereign territory and the usual 12-mile nautical limit that applies to natural islands is redundant. But this seems to have escaped the notice of the Chinese authorities. In fact, they have been threatening Philippine fisherman, warning off civilian flights and practicing air-interception drills above their new islands. In December 2015, BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was all but chased from the skies over Mischief Reef by the Chinese Navy while flying in a small passenger aircraft. The Chinese reacted fiercely and threateningly to what they maintained was an illegal invasion of their sovereign airspace — something not supported in international law.
All of this is making China’s neighbours nervous — and angry. Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim the Spratly islands (as well as the Paracels, another sparse archipelago further to the north) and Japan and South Korea are growing ever more uncomfortable with Chinese expansionism. The deep blue waters of the South China Sea teem with vessels of all kinds; this region is incredibly important for international trade and the so-called Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC’s) that all naval powers rely upon. All of the smaller powers rely upon the overwhelming might of the US Pacific Fleet to ensure that the status quo is maintained and that commerce can continue, yet it would seem that this Chinese expansion in the Spratly Islands can only be aimed at challenging US supremacy; there is simply no other target worthy of such efforts.
Indeed, China’s island-building project isn’t the only toy she is playing with. In an effort to break-out from the constrictions of the littoral zone (that part of the sea closest to the coastline), the Chinese government purchased the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier the Varyag under the pretence of converting her into a floating casino in 1998. Since then, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have refurbished her and in 2012 she was launched as the Liaoning, carrying a full complement of Chinese-built fighter-jets and an assortment of other aircraft. Set against the ten aircraft carriers of the US Navy, this may seem a paltry force but it represents an undeniable uplift in Chinese force-projection capabilities. For the first time they can strike out beyond their coastline and even beyond the First Island Chain. But Beijing has another card hiding up their sleeve: the infamous ‘carrier killer’ Dongfeng DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. This super-fast and horribly destructive missile is another part of what American analysts call China’s ‘A2/AD strategy’, or ‘anti-access/area denial’, designed to limit US Fleet movements and keep them far enough away from the Chinese mainland to allow successful offensive operations in the event of a war.
The commander of PACOM, the Pacific Area Command, Admiral Harry Harris is deeply concerned by the ongoing construction on the Spratly’s.
“I’m of the opinion that they’re militarising the South China Sea…they have reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of military bases. Short of war, they can rise to the level of having tactical control of the waterways of the South China Sea.”
The 59 year-old Japanese-American from Florida pulled no punches in replying to Chinese assertions that it is the Americans who have grown more aggressive in the South China Sea.
“When they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels, and when they build three 10,000 foot runways in the Spratlys on the bases that they’ve reclaimed — when they do all of that, they’re changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea,” Harris said.
“So, that is what’s changed. The United States and our patrols — military patrols, air and maritime in the South China Sea haven’t really changed. We have a consistent presence in the Western Pacific, and we have had that for decades.”
What has happened since 2012 however, has been the gradual redeployment of US military resources from the European theatre to the Pacific, in the ‘pivot to Asia’ programme. Under President Obama, the previous allocation of US naval strength from 60% in the Atlantic and 40% in the Pacific has been reversed. Simultaneously, the US has moved almost 2,000 marines to a base in Darwin, northern Australia; a significant statement of strategic goals and an unusual move for Australia which relies on Chinese consumption of its raw materials to support its economy.
It has to be said the Americans also have something of an obsession with island bases as well. In Singapore the Americans have upgraded and expanded Changi naval base and in the Second Island Chain on Tinian, Saipan and Guam the base facilities have been “hardened” — that is to say, they’ve had 3 ½ ft. thick concrete walls added to previously fortified hangars and bunkers. It would seem the Americans aren’t taking any chances in the case of brinkmanship. Indeed, they have also taken somewhat more direct action against their erstwhile Pacific neighbour.
In October 2015, the USS Lassen, a destroyer of the US Navy, breached the 12-mile nautical exclusion zone that China claims around Mischief Reef. The Chinese vessels in the area peppered the airwaves with warnings and shadowed the destroyer for some hours until it left the vicinity of the islands. The episode caused a brief diplomatic spat but little else came of it and on the face of it, the episode proved futile. But this would be missing the point. In fact, what this proved is that at least at present, the Chinese are powerless to resist US incursions and have no support in the region. They have neither the capability nor legal grounding to force the Americans to limit their area of operations — the only sense in which they could win a strategic victory — and meanwhile the US is left looking like the benevolent policeman of the Asia-Pacific, a lose-lose situation for China. But the USS Lassen incident is a walk in the park compared to what is currently unfolding in that unquiet sea.
On the 3rd of March, a US fleet consisting of the supercarrier USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the USS Blue Ridge (the flagship of the 7th Fleet) passed through the Luzon Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan and on into the South China Sea in order to exercise their freedom of the sea in international waters. This is the largest task-force the Obama administration has sent to the region so far and is therefore a real test of will for both parties. It is, of course, highly unlikely at this stage that any violence might ensue, at least in any deliberate manner, but with tensions running high and a lot of mutually hostile shipping in a concentrated area one can never say it is an impossibility. The Americans have been unfazed by any Chinese show of force — mainly because nothing the Chinese can muster can really compete with US hardware — and they have continued with their exercises as planned, with the air complement flying 266 sorties so far. The Chinese however are no fools and will not want to risk any real incidents while their bases are still under construction and terribly vulnerable; they have so far contented themselves with shadowing the US fleet from a distance and keeping up a constant barrage of inane warnings over the radio, as is their habit. If anything, those radio messages could become so damned annoying that they might provoke a sleepless US captain into mounting an attack and starting World War Three…but let’s hope not.
There is a word in Chinese that describes China’s place in the cosmos; it’s relation to other nations and its rightful position at the centre of the world: tianxia. Tianxia means ‘all under heaven’ and is a political as well as spiritual concept that dates back to the time of the emperors of China who held ‘The Mandate of Heaven’ and were the divine rulers of the Chinese people. It states, in broad terms that China has the right, even the destiny, to be the most powerful nation on earth and that all other countries should, in essence, acquiesce to this new order. As China becomes a more assertive and expansionist power, this concept has become an ever more important key to understanding their objectives and the world view that underpins them. Indeed, tianxia explains China’s apparently arrogant and domineering attitude in the South China Sea, both toward its neighbours and perhaps towards the coral reefs themselves — for the South China Sea is not only the scene of a potential military conflict but also of an ecological disaster. In December 2015, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes visited the Spratly Islands by plane (as noted above) and also by boat. It was on board a Philippine fishing skiff that he witnessed many Chinese fishermen using chains, anchors and the propellers of their boats to lay waste to the beautiful coral reefs around Palawan island. All of this done for no purpose, other than to spite the Philippine fishermen and in some cases catch endangered giant clams.
From above, the islands could be mistaken for clouds — but clouds stretching in odd directions, for above them a pall of dust hangs high in the air, kicked up by the cranes and lorries, while below and beside them great plumes of sand and dead coral drift for hundreds of feet in the cerulean sea. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang that ‘an island never cries’ but these islands appear to be weeping; bitterly weeping as they are entombed in concrete and asphalt, as their peace is shattered forever. And it would certainly seem that the peace of the South China Sea as whole is under threat. It won’t be long before China’s bases in the Spratly’s are fully operational. It won’t be long until the island reefs are ready to play their part in China’s ambitious plan to close the South China Sea to the US fleet. An island can be a dangerous thing.