While international attention is transfixed on the war in Ukraine, China has fully militarized three of its occupied islands in the contested South China Sea. The Russian intervention may have provided strategic cover for militarization of Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross reefs.
China has built defenses at three of several islands in the South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in a move that must prepare for threats for all nations operating nearby.
US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino stressed that commercial and military planes flying near these occupied islands will be within the range of China’s weapons, which he said threatens movements that operate near those features.
During his P-8 Poseidon’s patrol, it was reportedly repeatedly challenged with Chinese radio communications, giving a stern warning that China has sovereign over the Spratly Islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment.
The P-8 Poseidon’s crew responded, they are a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.
China maintains that its military expansion in these disputed waters is primarily defensive and aimed at protecting its sovereignty against foreign military movements in the South China Sea.
China and the USA aim to control the South China Sea’s underwater resources, namely oil, gas, and fisheries, as well as secure $5 billion annual maritime trading routes.
China started militarizing its holdings in the maritime area two decades back, much to the chagrin of the USA and its Pacific allies, alongside Southeast Asian states involved in these maritime disputes.
While the US regime and its allies routinely conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, the responses of Southeast Asian states have been somewhat varied.
Brunei and Malaysia have taken a softer, quiet diplomacy approach to China’s wide-reaching territorial claims, preferring to maintain a low profile on their conflicts with Beijing.
Vietnam has been consistently balancing against China’s superior naval might by modernizing its navy and establishing its own maritime militia.
While Indonesia is not a direct claimant in the South China Sea, Chinese encroachment in its Natuna Islands which are located on the southernmost extent of its nine-dash line has prompted to take a hard-line stance on illegal fishing in the area by Chinese trawlers.
The Philippines has a 1951 mutual defense treaty with the USA and international law to assert its own territorial claims and Chinese challenges.
In 2016, Manila lodged a case against China that was handled by the UN-backed Arbitral Tribunal and decided in the Philippines’ favor. Beijing has ignored the ruling, which lacked an enforcement mechanism.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2022.