China's claim to sovereignty over the uninhabited reefs and tiny islands of the South China Sea has never been recognised internationally. That's unsurprising given the claim is based on a vague map which the fledgling Communist government made public in 1949. In recent years, however, the Chinese have been busy dredging and building artificial islands and reef structures in the disputed Spratly Islands – a classic application, perhaps, of the old adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Satellite photos of these islets have identified radar facilities and a runway capable of handling military aircraft. This installation activity, along with demands that foreign ships remain 12 nautical miles distant from the newly built islands, add weight to the view that China is intent on giving its sovereignty claims the rule of force.
Certainly the United States believes this to be the case. At an international security conference in Singapore last month, Defence Secretary Ash Carter said that "turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit". He went on to say that US military aircraft and ships had been operating unhindered in the region for decades, and would continue to do so.
Mr Carter's remarks were criticised by Chinese officials as unhelpful, provocative and a threat to regional peace and stability, and a few days later the Global Times (an English language tabloid published by the official People's Daily newspaper) editorialised that "if the US's bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China sea".
The implications of China's plan to modernise its military and to project naval power in the open ocean has been much examined in defence strategy circles, and President Barack Obama's declaration in 2012 that the US will maintain its primacy in Asia – the so-called Pivot to East Asia strategy – has added another layer of complexity to the debate.
As a key alliance partner of America's and a major trading partner of China, Australia has a great deal riding on this strategic rivalry remaining amicable – as does Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It's presumably in China's interest, too, to ensure that its bid for primacy in the Asia Pacific region (or perhaps equal billing with the US) does not cascade into open conflict.
Yet, the Chinese military appears determined to push the strategic envelope, first by declaring an air defence identification zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2014, and now by demanding that ships give its military installations on the Spratly Islands a wide berth.
If China's hunger for great-power recognition is understandable, daring the Americans into challenging its South China Sea claims seems an unlikely way to achieve it. The strategy risks isolating China regionally, and would jeopardise the freedom of the seas on which so much of China's mercantile success has been built. Now, more than ever, China and the US need to agree on a modus vivendi. The alternative is a new cold war in the Asia-Pacific region.
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