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In recent days, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Japanese and Australian Foreign Ministers Taro Kono and Julie Bishop called on the Chinese leadership to stop unilateral power actions in the South China Sea. In their opinion, the artificial islands built by China on coral reefs can change the status quo, cause growing tension in the region and hamper free navigation in the water area of the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has been troubled for many years because of China's territorial disputes with the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam around the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Archipelago. The Chinese leadership considers these islands their "historical lands," considering that the Chinese have used them for 2,000 years in their economic activities. Neighboring states assert their rights to these islands. Their position is shared by the US, Australia and Japan, which are not interested in strengthening China's power in the region. The foreign ministers of the US, Australia and Japan called on China to adhere to the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 2016, arbitration judges came to the conclusion that China has no legal basis to uphold the historical rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea within the disputed islands. Most of the islands of the Spratly and Paracel archipelago are individual reefs and rocks that are not considered islands and are flooded during tides. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, reefs and flooded rocks that are outside the territorial sea of a state cannot be considered islands and have their own territorial waters. You can start count the 200-mile economic zone only from the shore of the land, including from the island.
China refuses to take into account the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague and continues to bring sand on reefs in the South China Sea with the help of special engineering ships in order to turn them into islands. According to a report by the US CSIS Analytical Center, China has created artificial islands on the reefs of Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief. Now Chinese engineers on these islands are building dual-purpose infrastructure facilities that can be used for military and civil purposes: airfields, radars, communication nodes. Not to mention the shelters for ground-to-air missiles, which also exist on artificial islands. In 2015, Chairman of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping cheated when he assured that construction work on the Spratly Islands did not affect the interests of any country and China did not intend to conduct its militarization.
It seems that China is creating artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to then proclaim its sovereignty over them. According to the law of the sea, artificial islands do not have the status of islands, do not have a territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf and there is no 200-mile economic zone around them. China needs this for other purposes. With the help of artificial islands, China expects to control the Spratly Islands. Military and civilian facilities on the islands are a cover for justifying the need for the constant presence of Chinese military and seamen in the region. If China will count the 200-mile economic zone from the disputed islands, it will be able to turn most of the South China Sea into its territorial waters. This sea is of strategic importance and is one of the main routes of sea trade. Annually commercial vessels transport goods worth $ 5 trillion through South China waters. The presence of military facilities on artificial islands will allow the Chinese to establish control over the South China Sea. Today, the Chinese military call the areas where artificial islands are built, the "zone of military alarm" of China and require foreign airplanes to leave the airspace.
Chinese artificial islands should be perceived as a simplified alternative to the aircraft carrier fleet. In the Pacific Fleet of the United States, aircraft carriers are used as floating military bases that can stay for a long time off the coast of regions where the US has vital interests. The armament of the Americans consists of 11 aircraft carriers. China's naval forces are significantly behind in the number of aircraft carriers. So far, they have 1 aircraft carrier Liaolin - the modernized Soviet aircraft carrying cruiser of class "Varyag", which Ukraine sold to China. The construction of another aircraft carrier, Shandong, will be completed in 2020. China needs to secure its permanent military presence in the South China Sea and the waters of the disputed Spratly Islands and Paracel archipelago. In the hangars on the artificial islands of Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief, there can be 24 combat aircraft (a total of 72), 4 military transport aircraft or heavy bomber. For comparison, one American aircraft carrier of the "Nimitz" type allows placing 64 combat aircraft and helicopters on it.
Manipulations with artificial islands in the South China Sea are reminiscent of China's actions towards Russia. China is carrying out territorial expansion in relation to Russia, influencing the change in the riverbeds of the border rivers, while the Russian leadership is sparing no money for military adventures and provocations in the east of Ukraine. China actively develops its Amur river bank, conducts dredging, strengthens it with rubble, covers its shores with concrete, thus affecting the change of the riverbed. As a result of the actions of the Chinese side, the current of the Amur is washing the Russian coast, and the riverbed goes to Russia. Since the Russian-Chinese border runs in the middle of the Amur River bed, the territories on which the river had previously flowed turned out to be on the Chinese shore and became the object of Beijing's claims. In the opinion of the director of Institute of Biology and Soil Science of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, academician of Russian Academy of Sciences Yury Zhuravlev, China is also carrying out measures to change the river bed of the Sungachi, which floods the border lake Khanka and the Russian territory.
Due to the change in the riverbed of Amur River, Russia and China have repeatedly demarcated the border. In 2005, China received an area of 337 square kilometers. In 2008, the Chinese province of Heilongjiang included the island of Tarabarov, the western part of the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, the Kazakevichev Channel, and part of the Russian coast along with the land border. The Chinese continued dredging in Kazakevichev's channel, as a result of which, during 2010, a section of Russian territory with the size of a football field went under the water. Chinese develop infrastructure in the former Russian territories: they built a bridge that connects the western part of the island of Bolshoi Ussuriysky with the land, built a four-lane highway on the island, made a monumental complex with a pagoda, and opened a landscaped wetland park. In 2016, the Chinese persuaded the Russian leadership to agree to the joint development of the entire island's infrastructure under the pretext of "preserving the environment in its original form."
The Chinese leadership was convinced of the pliability of Russians, who, without much debate, transferred the western part of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island and Tarabarov Island to them. China decided to take advantage of Russian experience in the South China Sea. Since the nuclear superpower in the person of Russia has not opposed the manipulation of China with the change in the riverbed, it is doubtful that measures to create artificial islands in the South China Sea will be effectively repelled by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. China enjoys inaction of neighboring countries and has so far successfully absorbed disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Might makes right
Relations between the US and China have recently deteriorated noticeably on the background of US sanctions against individual Chinese firms that developed trade and economic relations with North Korea. China's intransigence on contentious issues in the South China Sea only reinforces the discontent of President Donald Trump with his Chinese counterpart, who was unable to persuade DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong-un to stop conducting nuclear missile tests. The United States is in solidarity with Japan, for which China is a competitor in the Asia-Pacific region. Between China and Japan there is a territorial dispute around the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japanese jurisdiction. However, the options for pressure on China from the United States are limited.
The experience of former US President Barack Obama confirms the ineffectiveness of demonstration of power to China. US warships repeatedly entered the South China Sea. In such a way democrats wanted to confirm the seriousness of their intentions and the support of the countries of South-East Asia in territorial disputes with China. Nevertheless, China has not stopped the construction of artificial islands to this day. It will be difficult for the administration of the Republicans to persuade China to stop creating islands in the South China Sea. China took the introduction of US sanctions against its companies as an unfriendly act. Beijing doesn’t trust Donald Trump, who prior to the inauguration held talks with the leadership of Taiwan, violated the "one China policy" and recently placed US weapons on the island. Since the times of establishment of the communist system in mainland China, Beijing is interested in establishing control over the Chinese island of Taiwan, which refused to recognize the regime change.
The US can introduce anti-Chinese sanctions similar to the recent new sanctions against Russia, Iran and the DPRK. However, such a step is not beneficial to the American business, for which China is the main foreign economic partner and lender. Sanctions against certain sectors of China's economy will cost the US too much. The American and Chinese economies are mutually dependent. In the dispute over the islands in the South China Sea, the advantage is still on the side of China.