President Xi Jinping has ripped up international law and continued a massive military build-up in the South China Sea.
Amid escalating tension between Beijing and Washington, China has turned the maritime superhighway into one of the world’s new Cold War flashpoints.
Military bases have sprouted up on artificial islands constructed around Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross in the Spratly archipelago.
They now bristle with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, along with laser and jamming equipment backed up by an array of fighter jets.
“I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC [the People’s Republic of China],” Admiral John C Aquilino, the head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, said.
“They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
- Friction between China’s ruling Communist Party and the US and its allies in Asia and Europe has increased in the past 18 months.
- Issues include the militarization of the South China Sea and the Taiwan question.
- China claims more than 90% of one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, flouting international law.
- In 2016, a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s sweeping historical assertions under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
- Beijing simply dismissed the ruling and has continued to ignore the territorial waters of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
- Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through the South China Sea, making it a vital economic lifeline.
Delve deeper: China has ramped up its military spending, which will top 1.45 trillion yuan, or US$229.5 billion, this year. Only the US has a bigger defense budget.
Naval aspirations: The People’s Liberation Army Navy is now the largest in the world, but dwarfed by US carrier groups. Still, Beijing seems to be ahead in new hypersonic missile technology.
Deadly islands: “The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores. They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems,” Admiral Aquilino said.
Regional risks: Chinese missile systems also “threaten” airspace over the South China Sea. “That’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands. They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace,” he pointed out.
Big picture: The spotlight on China’s militarization of the South China Sea comes at a time when “close friend” Russia is waging an illegal war against democratic Ukraine. Beijing has yet to condemn Moscow’s invasion and the bombing of civilians amid a brutal conflict.
Axis of autocracy: “Some argue that China will build on a pre-war friendship with Russia that knows ‘no limits,’ to create an axis of autocracy. Others counter that America can shame China into breaking with Russia,” The Economist suggested at the weekend.
Decline and fall: “Our reporting suggests that neither scenario is likely. The deepening of ties with Russia will be guided by cautious self-interest, as China exploits the war in Ukraine to hasten what it sees as America’s inevitable decline,” The Economist stated.
China Factor comment: Military bases across a string of man-made islands would prove to be a formidable barrier for American and allied forces if, or when, China decides to invade Taiwan. The island democracy and high-tech hub is considered a renegade province by Beijing. Comrade Xi has even vowed to take Taiwan back by force if necessary.