China Stirs Up Trouble at Sea

Hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast, in international waters no country should control, a sneaky effort by Beijing is underway to claim much of the South China Sea. Put it on your list of potential hot spots for 2016.

China’s game plan involves dredging massive amounts of sand to turn a series of lonely shoals and rocks into islands. Over the past two years or so, China has built up at least five new land masses in the area known as the Spratly Islands. And it has begun to occupy those spits of land and treat them as if they were part of sovereign Chinese territory.

Legally, China’s strategy should not stand. International law says that a naturally formed island gets territorial control for a radius of 12 nautical miles, but China doesn’t have any of those.

Besides China, five other governments in the region lay claim to all or some of the Spratlys: the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. They don’t recognize China’s attempt to control the South China Sea.

The Philippines is challenging China’s assertions at the United Nations. At sea, real conflict could be brewing.

A BBC news crew recently got a sense of Chinese intentions. A BBC plane, in international airspace, got close enough to Mischief (or Meiji) Reef to get a good view of a runway being built. The occupants also got a chilling warning over the radio from the Chinese military: “Foreign military aircraft in north-west of Meiji Reef, this is the Chinese Navy, you are threatening the security of our station!”

In October, a U.S. guided missile frigate, the Lassen, cruised near Mischief Reef to assert the right of all craft to travel in the area and was tailed by a Chinese vessel.

Later in December, The Wall Street Journal reported that an American B-52 bomber had flown within two nautical miles of an artificial Chinese island, evidently on Dec. 10. Beijing officials filed a formal diplomatic complaint with the U.S. Embassy; Pentagon sources in Washington blamed bad weather for an inadvertent fly-by.

As tensions rise, China’s intentions for its faux islands remain opaque. The South China Sea is a crucial sea lane with fishing grounds and possibly oil deposits. There are tangling ownership claims to the islands that go back centuries. The best course for all the countries involved is to negotiate a settlement. But China can’t be allowed to exert territorial control where it doesn’t exist -- or set precedents for the manufacture of bogus islands elsewhere. The international community has to press that point.

As this dispute drags on, toggling between calm and crisis is better than war; but the smarter play is for other countries to make it clear that as Beijing tries to grow its global stature (and earn global trust), it can’t seize control of international waters.

Expect U.S. naval vessels to revisit the Spratlys, and hope for smooth sailing when they do.

Reprinted from the Northwest Florida Daily News

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