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Only war can now stop Beijing controlling the South China Sea

The island fortresses are built. The airfields are ready. The harbours are open. All China needs do now is move in the warships and combat jets, reported News.com.au (Australia). The chief of US Fleet Forces Command has told US Congress that Beijing has built up enough military infrastructures in the South China Sea to completely control the disputed waterway. “Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania,” Admiral Philip S. Davidson wrote. “The PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge US presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants. “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” It emerged last Thursday that two Australian warships and their supporting tanker were reportedly confronted by the Chinese Navy a week ago as they moved through the region’s vital sea lanes towards a goodwill visit to Vietnam. In the past, such visits to nations including the Philippines via the South China Sea have been routine. What has changed is China’s assertion — flying in the fact of a 2016 international arbitration court ruling — that it holds national sovereignty over the entire 3.5 million square kilometre waterway. The sea bounds the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Beijing has established its claim as almost a fait accompli through illegally turning coral reefs and tidal rocky outcrops (the ownership of which is disputed) into enormous fortresses. It says that now these have artificially been turned into islands, they represent sovereign territory. The international court of arbitration disagrees. TREATY TROUBLES Admiral Davidson has been nominated to take over the United States’ Pacific Command, responsible for co-ordinating army, navy and air force actions in that region. He says only an armed conflict could now stop Beijing from closing the South China Sea’s international sea lanes. He told politicians this was why it was vital to recapture the technological advantage US forces held for five decades after World War II. “In the future, hypersonic and directed energy weapons, resilient space, cyber and network-capabilities, and well-trained soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen will be crucial to our ability to fight and win,” he said. Admiral Davidson is using the standoff with China to assert the United States’ Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missile limitation agreement (INF Treaty) with Russia is no longer valid. China is not a signatory to the treaty. It has been rapidly building up an arsenal of missiles that fall within this category capable of striking US aircraft carrier formations deep at sea. Admiral Davidson told Congress his forces cannot defend against new Chinese hypersonic weapons. “In the Indo-Pacific, the absence of the INF treaty would provide additional options to counter China’s existing missile capabilities, complicate adversary decision making, and impose costs by forcing adversaries to spend money on expensive missile defence systems,” Admiral Davidson told US Congress. “I believe the INF treaty today unfairly puts the United States at a disadvantage and places our forces at risk because China is not a signatory.” FLASHPOINT TAIWAN China’s rhetoric over Taiwan has also become increasingly bellicose. It’s state-run media has issued a stern warning of “destruction” if the US continues to develop ties with the last outpost of China to resist Communist rule. “Taiwan concerns China’s core interests, but Washington has been unbridled in infringing upon the one-China policy and emboldened the small group of separatists in Taiwan to turn more aggressive and arrogant in their secession attempts,” the Global Times editorial reads. “The PLA has an unshakeable determination to safeguard national reunification. Whoever infringes upon the one-China policy and advocates Taiwan independence will invite destruction. And the US is no exception.” Probing flights by Chinese bombers and fighters have become common place in recent months, with flights regularly circling Taiwan. Following its recent participation in a South China Sea parade, a naval battle-group centered on the aircraft carrier Liaoning has passed between Japan and Taiwan to conduct exercises off its West Pacific shores. “Although peaceful reunification with Taiwan is the optimal choice, in the mainland reunification by force is being seriously considered as an option,” the state-approved editorial reads. “It is up to Chinese people to eventually decide when and how Taiwan will be reunified.” In language reminiscent to that coming from Kim Jong-un’s state controlled North Korean media, the Global Times threatened: “the more Washington supports Taiwan separatists, the earlier they will see their doomsday coming.” GROWING ASSERTIVENESS Beijing political mouthpiece The Global Times has published an article attacking Australia for its “hostile sentiment”. “If Australia considers exchanges between countries as interference, it should lock itself up in the dark room,” it quotes the Chinese foreign ministry as saying in response to the tense standoff between the two nations’ warships. “People who have such a mindset need to reflect”, foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying reportedly said. “If there is no mutual trust, there’s no room for co-operation. China hopes Australia takes practical action and corrects its prejudice against China”. But trust is a two-way street. Earlier this month China reversed its longstanding assertion that it held no intention to militarise the South China Sea artificial islands. The claim has always been made in the face of mounting satellite evidence that it had installed hardened bunkers, military weapons systems and sensors, along with military grade runways. Now, a spokesman from China’s ministry of defence has declared China has a “natural right as a sovereign nation” to put troops and military equipment in the Spratly Islands. The admission came shortly after it was reported military electronic jamming equipment had been installed at Mischief Reef in the Spratleys, alongside its enormous airfield and gun emplacements. Surveillance photographs published by the Philippines news service The Inquierer earlier this year appeared to show two troop transport ships and an amphibious assault platform docked at Mischief Reef, offloading troops and equipment. Last week, another photograph revealed Chinese air force combat transport aircraft on the island’s tarmac. “I think, from the very beginning, China, we knew, was militarising the area by reclaiming these areas and by using them as military bases,” said Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque. STRONG NAVY, SECURE CHINA All indications out of Beijing are that stand-offs in what is regarded as the world’s busiest waterway will only increase in size and frequency. China’s newly appointed president-for-life Xi Jinping attended a fleet review of more than 40 warships and submarines in the South China Sea on April 12 “showcasing a new height of the People’s Liberation Army Navy via its Liaoning carrier battle group and the new-generation nuclear submarine,” the Global Times says. “China’s ability to defend world and regional peace has reached another milestone.” In an address to the assembled sailors, President Xi said the need for a strong navy had never been more urgent. “This is crucial to point out in today’s international environment and his tone carried a robust sense of mission,” the news service says. “Xi has expressed in several key reports that China is closer than ever to achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. However, history reminds us that the closer we are to accomplishing a glorious goal, the more the pressure and risk. Building a strong navy, as well as national defence, has never been more significant to China.” China’s second aircraft carrier, the first of which it has built itself, is due to set sail for the first time later this month. “China must ignore the noise of the ‘Chinese military threat’ theory from some Western countries,” the editorial reads. “The theory is a misrepresentation of China’s role as the world’s second-largest economy and its role in securing global peace. The theory is also a discrimination to China’s status as one of the world’s major powers.” *** Researchers are proposing a new boundary in the South China Sea that they say will help the study of natural science while potentially adding weight to China’s claims over the disputed waters, according to a senior scientist involved in the government-funded project, reported South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). The new boundary will help to define more clearly China’s claims in the contested region, but it is not clear whether or when it will be officially adopted by Beijing, the scientist said. A precise continuous line will split the Gulf of Tonkin between China and Vietnam, go south into waters claimed by Malaysia, take a U-turn to the north along the west coast of the Philippines and finish at the southeast of Taiwan. For decades, China’s sovereign claim in the South China Sea has been murky, in large part because of the use of a segmented, vaguely located borderline known as the ‘nine-dash line’. A United Nations tribunal ruled in July 2016 that China had no legal basis to claim the area within the dash lines. One reason for China losing the case was that it could not define the territory precisely. However, analysts said Beijing was unlikely to officially change the nine-dash line any time soon, in the face of potential international opposition. Changing the nine-dash line could harm regional stability, warned Dr Ian J. Storey, senior fellow with Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore studying maritime security in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia’s relations with China. “If China does indicate its claims in the South China Sea by a continuous line which joins up the nine dashes, it would represent a complete repudiation of the July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling,” Storey said. The move would “cause deep concern in the capitals of Southeast Asia and beyond”, he added. The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The vast area of blue outlined by the new boundary, hanging on a map like a Christmas stocking under South China, overlaps the dashes and fills in the gaps. It includes all contested waters, such as the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, James Shoal and Scarborough Shoal. The boundary would determine for the first time the exact area that China claimed to own with historic rights in the South China Sea, according to the researcher. Its purpose was partly the study of natural science and partly driven by a political motivation “to strengthen China’s claims” over the waters to prepare for possible changes in its South China Sea policy in the future, the researcher said. Within the boundary, China would claim the right to activities ranging from fishing, prospecting and mining for energy or mineral resources to the construction of military bases with deep water ports or airports. Other countries’ access to these rights would, however, be open for discussion, as is the case at Scarborough Shoal, which China controls but allows Philippine fishing boats to access. While Beijing would consider the area within the boundary its territory, other countries would still have freedom of navigation, the researcher said. The project team had pinned down the initial location of the boundary using global satellite positioning. “The GPS data set is ready,” said the researcher, who requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of the study. “It can provide different resolutions, from a kilometre to a few centimetres [regarding the width of the line], depending on the need in practice.” Drawing the boundary was just the first step, the researcher said. Calculations of the total biomass, oil and gas reserves, mineral deposits and other natural resources in the China-claimed area were also under way, with funding from the Chinese central government and provincial authorities of Guangdong. Although the Chinese claims are based on historic record, part of the research is to determine the value of China’s assets within the boundary. “Soon we will have a clear idea of what belongs to us in the South China Sea and what does not,” said the researcher. “This will allow us to better plan and coordinate the efforts to protect our national interest in the region while reducing the risk of conflict with other countries caused by the absence of a border over the ocean.” The nationalist government first adopted the dash drawings in 1947, when officials inspected the South China Sea on a US naval ship before drawing the dashes on their return. The dash drawing – short curves loosely located in the ocean with vast bodies of undefined water in between – was to give a general but imprecise impression of Chinese sovereignty in the region while acknowledging freedom of navigation for vessels from other countries. At first there were 11 dashes, but in the 1950s the Chinese government removed two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin to please the communist rulers in Vietnam. In 2013, Beijing added a dash southeast of Taiwan, bringing the total to 10. Beijing is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, and establishes guidelines for businesses, the environment and the management of marine natural resources. But it has intentionally never ­defined the legal meaning of the nine-dash line or what its rights are within the boundary. This ambiguity has led many in China to believe that it marks the nation’s maritime boundary, but, again, Beijing has never made this explicit. Others say it encircles the area where China demands economic rights. Another interpretation is that the line indicates the islands and reefs China wants to control rather than the waters inside its boundaries. ­Beijing has long favoured a strategy of ambiguity, not openly acting against international law but preferring to leave space for its more ambitious claims. In recent years, China has launched a massive campaign to expand and strengthen its grip in the South China Sea, with giant dredging ships turning small islets into man-made islands with military radar stations and air strips, oil drilling platforms being deployed in contested waters, and regular large-scale naval exercises involving aircraft carriers, advanced warships and nuclear submarines. Some scientists believed that the total number of undersea surveillance sensors deployed by China in the South China Sea had already exceeded those by the US, a sign of shifting balance in the region. “More often, when we are sending vessels out to the sea or looking down at an area via satellite, we are not sure whether it was our water,” said the researcher in the boundary-drawing project. “The nine-dash line can no longer meet the demands of increasing Chinese activities in the South China Sea.” “There is no way to calculate how large an area is by drawing the border with dash lines,” said Professor Zou Jingui, deputy director of the School of Geodesy and Geomatics at Wuhan University. “You have to give a computer a closed boundary. Replacing the nine-dash line with a precise, continuous boundary will make work in this area easier.” Zou was not involved in the project. The continuous boundary was generated not only by curve-extending, gap-filling algorithms on computer. It was also based on a solid piece of historic evidence, according to the project team. In 1951, an official map approved by the central government of China marked the China-claimed area in the South China Sea with a pair of non-stopping lines. There was an inner black line indicating the sovereign boundary and an outer red line representing where China could exercise administrative power. “We were thrilled when we found the map,” the researcher said. “It is something we can show the world.” A detailed description of the map was published by the project team in a paper in domestic academic journal China Science Bulletin in March this year. Its authors recommended using the continuous U-shape boundary line as a replacement for the nine-dash line. The “U-boundary is the border of China’s sea in the South China Sea, and its sovereignty belongs to China”, the authors wrote in the paper. It “can further express the certainty of the integrity, continuity and border of China’s seas in the South China Sea”, they wrote, adding that it was “more vivid, accurate, complete and scientific”. Professor Yu Minyou, director of the China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies at Wuhan University, said that if the old map was published with government approval, which was usually the case in China, “it surely will add legal weight to China’s claim” in the region. A scientific basis for estimating natural resources was important to China, otherwise it would have nothing concrete or precise to put on table when negotiating with its neighbours, he said. But other countries should bear in mind that it did not represent the Chinese government’s position as long as the dash lines stayed on official maps, Yu said, adding that China’s strategy for the South China Sea was “open and clear”. “China wants to achieve peace, stability, harmony and prosperity in the region,” he said. “We are willing to share natural resources with other countries and leave the disputes to be solved in the future. “What we are doing now is creating a suitable environment for the final settlement of the issue.” A government expert at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, Hainan, said the continuous boundary would serve as a useful tool for some studies of natural science. But it was highly unlikely to be printed on an official map, said the expert, who requested not to be named because he was not allowed to speak to overseas media about sensitive issues. “To my knowledge, the Chinese government currently has no plan to change the dash lines,” he said. “Most diplomats and ocean law experts will oppose joining the dashes.” The tension in the South China Sea has eased significantly in recent times, with neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam no longer seeking direct confrontation with China over disputed areas. “Things are moving towards the right direction,” the government expert said. “It is not the best time to cut a boundary.”