Beijing seen poised for fresh South China
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[October 31, 2017]
By Greg Torode and Ben Blanchard
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - China has
quietly undertaken more construction and reclamation in the South China
Sea, recent satellite images show, and is likely to more powerfully
reassert its claims over the waterway soon, regional diplomats and
military officers say.
With global attention focused on North Korea and Beijing engrossed in
its Party Congress, tensions in the South China Sea have slipped from
the headlines in recent months.
But with none of the underlying disputes resolved and new images
reviewed by Reuters showing China continuing to develop facilities on
North and Tree islands in the contested Paracel islands, experts say the
vital trade route remains a global flashpoint.
Some expect China to land its first deployments of jet fighters onto its
runways in the Spratly islands in coming months, while regional military
officers say it is already using the new facilities to expand naval and
coast guard deployments deep into Southeast Asia.
"They've built these extensive facilities and both Chinese civilian and
PLA experts have always made it clear that when the strategic time is
right, they're going to start using them more fully," said Bonnie
Glaser, a China security expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and
"I think it is a question of when, rather than if, China will start to
assert its interests more forcefully in the South China Sea ... and that
is likely to be at a time of China's choosing," Glaser told Reuters.
Rival claimant Vietnam, meanwhile, is nearing completion of reclamations
and an extended runway on its base on Spratly Island, the satellite
CALM AFTER THE STORM
The build-up of the Spratlys symbolizes China's growing assertiveness
over the South China Sea during President Xi Jinping's first term and
was highlighted in his address to the Communist Party Congress this
"Construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen
steady progress," Xi told the Congress.
The issue is likely to come up during U.S. President Donald Trump's
visit to Asia, which begins this week.
"We remain concerned about tensions in the South China Sea, in
particular those caused by land reclamation and militarization of
disputed outposts and the willingness of some to resort to coercive
tactics to assert their claims," said Michael Cavey, a spokesman for the
U.S. State Department.
"We have consistently called on China, as well as other claimants, to
refrain from any further land reclamation, construction of new
facilities, and militarization of the disputed features."
Responding to Reuters' questions, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren
Guoqiang reiterated the islands were irrefutably Chinese territory.
"You can't say that the construction on our islands and reefs in the
South China Sea and the building of necessary defensive facilities is an
expansion of military deployments," he said.
"We believe that at present the situation in the South China Sea is
generally good, and all relevant parties should work hard together to
protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea."
China's ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, said on Monday the United
States should not try to "interfere" in regional efforts to resolve
disputes in the South China Sea.
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Satellite photo shows Chinese-controlled North Island, part of the
Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea, on September 29, 2017.
Planet Labs/Handout via REUTERS
China has been seeking to soothe fellow claimant the Philippines and
accelerating talks with the wider ASEAN grouping, amid concerns in
Washington about the long-term security of the waterway through
which some $3 trillion in trade a year passes.
In a speech in Singapore earlier this month, the most senior U.S.
military chief in the region said even while Washington pushed
Beijing for help on North Korea, it would still hold China
accountable for actions that countered international rules and
"We also want Beijing to do more to stop provocative actions in the
East China Sea and the South China Sea, where the Chinese are
building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to
assert de-facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features,"
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said.
China claims much of the area through its controversial nine-dash
line, which overlaps rival maritime claims by Vietnam, the
Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
TACTICS NOT STRATEGY
A recent study by the U.S. government-linked RAND Corp weighing the
risks of a conflict between the United States and China moved the
South China Sea up its list of potential flashpoints.
Placing it above Taiwan but below the Korean peninsula, the study
notes the waterway has "become the unanticipated focal point of
U.S.-Chinese ... rivalry".
While the Pentagon has embarked on more regular
freedom-of-navigation patrols, or FONOPS, to challenge Beijing's
claims, some analysts believe Washington is struggling to counter
China's creeping domination of the area.
"China appears to be pursuing a well-thought out and long-term
strategy to achieve dominion over the South China Sea while America
responds with ad hoc tactical maneuvers," said Ian Storey, a South
China Sea expert at Singapore's Yusof Ishak Institute.
"FONOPS are tactics not strategy, and they have not made China
rethink its plans for the South China Sea one iota."
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political
Science and Law, said there was little need for China to
dramatically increase deployments now, but much depended on the
"As long as others don't intentionally go and provoke clashes,
things will be fine," he added. "The issue is that some countries,
like the United States, go and stir things up."
(Reporting by Greg Torode and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by
David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Venus Wu in HONG KONG; Editing by
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