South China Sea Dispute Keeps Swirling

South China Sea Dispute Keeps Swirling

FORUM Staff

Nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region are increasing their involvement in the South China Sea controversy.

China has stepped up the creation of artificial islands in the disputed sea, drawing strong criticism from its neighbors. Several Southeast Asia countries — particularly the Philippines and Vietnam — have railed against Beijing’s increasingly assertive tone in claiming virtually the entire South China Sea.

China has overlapping claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the sea, through which U.S. $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Several notable developments regarding the South China Sea were taking place in mid- to late October 2015:

  • Taiwan, which has largely kept out of the South China Sea dispute, announced it would increase its Coast Guard presence and construct a larger port on a small island in the disputed sea, Reuters reported. Itu Aba is now the fourth largest island in the Spratly Islands, officials said, after China’s land creation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.
  • Malaysia has generally adopted a cautious line in its dealings with Beijing over disputed territory in the South China Sea. But its Armed Forces chief said on October 18, 2015, that China’s construction work on the Spratly Islands is an “unwarranted provocation,” Reuters reported.
  • In a rebuff to China, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in October 2015 that the U.S. military would sail and fly wherever international law allowed, including the South China Sea. He spoke after meeting with Australian defense ministers. Media reports said the U.S. was strongly considering conducting freedom-of-navigation operations inside 12 nautical-mile limits that China claims around islands built on reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
  • China denies it has militarized the South China Sea, saying the construction work is mostly for civilian purposes, maritime research and to facilitate safe navigation. However, its assurances have failed to gain much traction abroad, The Associated Press reported.
  • Attempting to strike a more conciliatory tone, China’s defense minister announced in October 2015 that he is willing to hold joint drills with Southeast Asian countries in the disputed sea, covering accidental encounters, search and rescue, and disaster relief, according to Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
  • One more fact on the ground has changed: In October 2015, China began operating two 50-meter-tall lighthouses on Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South in the Spratly Islands, The Associated Press reported. Chinese officials say the lighthouses will help with navigation. Foreign diplomats and naval officers retort that the structures represent a shrewd move to buttress China’s territorial claims. The next time the U.S. sends warships by China’s artificial islands, officers aboard will have to decide how to engage with the pair of giant lighthouses. While modern navies mostly rely on electronic instruments to confirm their ships’ positions, visual fixes from lighthouses are still used. Any such moves would play into a strategy “geared to bolstering China’s claims by forcing other countries to effectively recognize Chinese sovereignty by their actions,” Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, told Reuters.
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