China is, reports say, making more and faster progress than expected in its “island building” campaign in the South China Sea.
For a refresher, there are several competing claims on various rocks and shoals and small islands in the South China Sea, but China’s are the most extensive and the most problematical:
The problems are twofold:
- The extent of China’s claims which embrace almost all of the islands, rocks and shoals in the region; and
- The extent of the construction ~ the “facts on the ground,” if you will ~ of new, artificial islands that China has done and is doing.
According to some recent reports China has at least seven artificial island projects with an “new” area of almost 3,000 acres in the South China Sea.
Three thousand acres is an area approximately equal to 600 of the flight decks of the largest US aircraft carriers, each of which can operate a wing of 50 to 75 modern aircraft. (The USA has about 20 carriers: a dozen of the big, super-carriers and about eight of the smaller carriers that embark helicopters and STOVL aircraft.)
The Chinese are already landing commercial multi-engine aircraft on these artificial islands, bringing tourists to visit with the soldiers manning the garrisons …
The artificial islands are “home” to many Chinese soldiers … including soldiers with advanced weapons system according to some reports.
The Chinese, however, are showing the world a friendly, peaceful “face,” with pretty Chinese sailors in greenhouses (suggesting the islands can be at least somewhat self sufficient in the event of a blockade) and, of course, the “tourist” visits.
Meanwhile, the US Navy conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to demonstrate to the world that the waters are international; and the Chinese acquiesce, for now, to show the world that their islands are not a threat to anyone …
… bit, in fact, the Chinese are taking a “free ride” with the US Navy.
China is a major, global trading nation. It relies upon the freedom of the seas for its ever growing volume of trade with the rest of the world …
… but it does little (some anti-piracy patrols, to be fair, but, then, so does Canada) to protect and enforce the freedom of navigation it enjoys, world-wide. The US Navy does most of the “heavy lifting” on everyone’s behalf. So, the very fleet that “interferes” with Chinese operations in the South China Sea is, in fact, giving China a “free ride” to build those artificial islands.
I have no doubt that China is building “facts on the ground” that its neighbours will simply have to swallow. There are many artificial islands, they are big, big enough (with 10,000 foot runways) to accommodate commercial jetliners and advanced military aircraft, and they are “operational,” right now ~ even with the greenhouses.
What can we, the US led West do?
We can do the same as the Chinese are doing:
- Rely upon the US Navy to keep the sea-lines of communication “free,”but we, Australia and Britain and Canada, and, and, and … can and should offer to help int hat task; and
- Provide financial assistance to e.g. the Philippines and Malaysia to expand their own fleets and build their own artificial islands, their own “facts on the ground.”
I remain convinced that China is not interested in any sort of shooting war with the West, but it is, right now, waging a different sort of war and, it appears to me, it’s winning it. We, the US at least, is, also, giving China a free ride.