21 October 2016
Tiny and scattered islets in the vast South China Sea, either natural or man-made, are vulnerable to attacks in modern warfare. Photo: Internet
Tiny and scattered islets in the vast South China Sea, either natural or man-made, are vulnerable to attacks in modern warfare. Photo: Internet

How Beijing’s island-building feeds into Washington’s pivot

Fishery has added more strain to Beijing’s long-running spat with neighbors in the South China Sea.

The string of recent incidents in the disputed waters is no coincidence but evidence of some underlying changes in geopolitics.

Some Southeast Asian nations that were once on good terms with Beijing have, one after another, abandoned courtesy.

The Indonesian military last month intercepted and arrested several Chinese fishermen for illegal entry into its territorial waters off the Natuna Islands but the Chinese coast guard vessels reportedly intervened and prevented a Chinese fishing boat from being towed away.

The incident, the most serious diplomatic rift between Beijing and Jakarta, happened in waters within the range of the Beijing-demarcated “nine-dash line”. But in November last year Beijing acknowledged Jakarta’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands.

Malaysian authorities have, after a rare protest against Beijing’s excesses within its exclusive economic zone in June last year, revealed that more than 100 Chinese fishing boats passed through its territorial waters.

Almost at the same time, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration also arrested a number of mainland fishermen in waters surrounding its Pratas (Dongsha) Islands, the first time in decades.

Beijing has yet to respond to the pleas from its fishermen currently under detention in Kaohsiung, and the case will be in the hands of Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen if it cannot be resolved before she takes office this May.

All these have lots to do with superpowers outside the region.

Washington has made steady progress in the past four years with its “Pivot to Asia” strategic rebalancing, with a slew of key defense accords with the Philippines, Singapore and Australia, arms sales to Taiwan and stepped-up air-sea patrolling.

Russia is busily supplying submarines, fighter aircrafts and other arms to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations amid the region’s growing unease over Beijing’s presence.

Japan and India are also eager to step in with drills and military collaborations.

All these explain the new, shared intransigence of Southeastern Asian nations in the face of Beijing’s saber-rattling.

Beijing’s island-building frenzy is not going to do itself any good either, and the reason is plain: islets scattered in the vast ocean, either natural or man-made, are almost impossible to defend yet vulnerable to attacks both from the sea and the air. Supplies can also be finite and costly due to their remote locations.

Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea – 800 hectares of land has been reclaimed – is hardly a wise tactic and I suspect a substantial portion of the hefty investment has been channeled into some senior cadres’ own pockets.

A major-general at the Chinese Navy’s South Sea Fleet overseeing equipment development committed suicide in September 2014 and a year later his successor has been charged with corruption.

Beijing’s military strategy to take hold of Taiwan is anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) but it will be foolhardy to apply the same in the South China Sea, as its own vital marine arteries through these waters for energy and import and export may be shut down by Vietnam and the Philippines on both sides.

The first island chain, reaching from the islands off the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East to the Malay Peninsula, will be another cordon in the east.

There are several alternative routes for goods and supplies between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East regions: when Beijing seals off the South China Sea, ships can sail north via navigable channels in the Philippine waters, and, should the Malacca Strait be no longer safe, routes south of Indonesia’s Sumatra and Java islands to southern Philippines can also be used instead.

Indeed, these are routes for extra-large vessels not capable of fitting through the narrow and shallow Malacca Strait.

Even if Beijing manages to blockade much of the South China Sea, Washington may counter the move by shutting down Malacca Strait and other fairways vital to China’s economy.

Then the game’s not worth the candle.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 24.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Read more:

Why Beijing can’t vent its spleen on US after bomber flyover

South China Sea tension: a storm in a teacup

Not all quiet on key Asian fronts, but a war is far away

Why Diaoyu dispute pales against backdrop of stormy S China Sea

A file image of an airstrip newly added to an islet under China’s control. Photo: Internet

An artist’s impression of Beijing’s "island cities" plan that is modeled on Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay and Happy Valley area. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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