The People’s Liberation Army Navy guided missile destroyer Shenzhen (DDG-167)
Satellite photos released last week revealed that China has been secretly constructing an artificial island in the South China Sea large enough to play host to an airstrip, a harbor for the docking of warships, and the accompanying support facilities for both. Located amidst a chain of islands known as the Spratly Archipelago, this new island is likely to raise already high tensions among the numerous countries that have laid claim to territory in the area, including China, Brunei, Taiwan, and Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Why are so many countries so intent on claiming a piece of this remote island chain, whose islands are almost all far too small to support any sort of human habitation or development? The answer, as is often the case, is natural resources. The islands aren’t desired as much for what exists on their surface, but rather for what surrounds them and lies beneath them. Not only do the waters in which the islands are located include one of the region’s most profitable fisheries, but studies have shown that the ocean floor beneath them is likely to contain a large quantity of unexploited oil.
To be sure, China isn’t the first country of those listed above to attempt to turn its territorial claims into physical realities. Indeed, all of the above countries—with the exception of Brunei—have constructed stations on reefs or islands in the area. China’s move, however, is by far the most audacious maneuver undertaken in this brewing dispute, in its attempt to actually build an island large enough to support a military presence. Furthermore, the timing of this revelation is also quite significant. Following the conclusion of a conference meant to strengthen its economic ties to other countries in the region, this action makes clear that while China may be looking to further regional economic integration, it certainly has no intention of defusing tensions in the region over strategic issues in the near future.
What does this mean for the balance of power in East Asia? Undoubtedly, China has the most powerful military in the region: It is a nuclear-armed state with the largest active military in the world, and recently joined the elite club of nations that possess an aircraft carrier.
While there is no single nation in the region at this point that comes close to matching China’s military or economic capacity, there are two countries that China must certainly tread carefully with: South Korea and Japan. Powerful in their own right, both countries’ militaries are bolstered immensely by the presence of U.S. troops on their soil. Japan in particular appears to be making a major push to bolster the capacity of its armed forces in recent months.
Even with these two formidable militaries—along with their American benefactors—in the region, all signs point to China making moves to continue its military build-up and attempts to expand its territory wherever possible unless checked by the U.S. and its allies. At this point, however, doing so may no longer be feasible. Years of not paying enough attention to China’s rise have emboldened the East Asian giant, and the recent moves made by Beijing in the South China Sea are likely just the beginning of China’s campaign of aggressive actions in what it considers to be its territorial waters.