Beijing's fake islands test
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Beijing's fake islands test

The Barack Obama administration has been very busy dealing with nuclear negotiations with Iran, a war against the Islamic State, a new conflict in Yemen and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Yet the understandable focus on these other crises has obscured China's efforts to speed up its militarisation of the South China Sea.

Now, Chinese progress has reached the point that senior Pentagon officials and Congressional leaders are demanding the administration do something about it.

There is no shortage of evidence of China's rapid buildup of infrastructure and armaments in disputed territory far from its physical borders. Satellite photos released last month show that in the past year, China has built several entirely new islands in disputed waters using land-reclamation technology, and then constructed military-friendly facilities on them. In the Spratly Islands, new Chinese land masses have been equipped with helipads and anti-aircraft towers, raising regional concerns that Beijing is using thinly veiled military coercion to establish control in an area where six Asian nations have claims.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, recently sounded the alarm in a speech in Australia, calling the Chinese project "unprecedented" and saying that the construction is part of a larger campaign of provocative actions against smaller Asian states.

"China is creating a 'Great Wall of Sand' with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months," he warned, adding that it raised "serious questions about Chinese intentions".

For example, satellite photos taken by Airbus Defence and Space show that over the past year China has built an 74,300-square-metre island on top of Hughes Reef in the Spratly Islands, where no island existed before. China also began a reclamation and construction project at nearby Gavin's Reef. Both islands now have helipads and anti- aircraft towers.

China has also expanded its already created islands on the Spratlys' Johnson South Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — the last of which can accommodate an airstrip, according to the US military. Adm Harris said China has created more than 2.5 square kilometres of "artificial landmass" in the South China Sea. China's claims are based on what's known as the nine-dash line, which if implemented would grant China 90% of the entire Sea.

Top Asia watchers in Congress have been asking the Obama administration to confront China on the issue and devote more attention to the increasingly tense situation in the region. In the late hours of the debate over the Senate budget last week, three senators added two amendments aimed at pushing the Obama administration to reinvigorate its so-called "Pivot to Asia".

The first of those amendments, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Robert Menendez, Cory Gardner and Ben Cardin, calls on the administration to develop and make public a comprehensive strategy to ensure freedom of navigation in the Pacific. It would also allow Congress to fund more training and exercises by the US military and its Asian partners.

A second amendment, authored by Mr Gardner, the new chairman of the Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls for an independent agency such as the Government Accountability Office to review what the administration is actually spending on the Asia pivot and to make recommendations on how it might be better managed.

"It's important that the American people have a full accounting of the resources that have been devoted to this important policy and whether they have been prioritised effectively," Mr Gardner said.

These pieces of legislation are the latest effort by Congress to find out exactly what the administration is doing to counter China's maritime moves. On March 19, all four leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Ashton Carter calling on the administration to wake up to the graveness of the situation in the South China Sea. "Without a comprehensive strategy for addressing the PRC's broader policy and conduct, long-standing interests of the United States, as well as our allies and partners, stand at considerable risk,'' they wrote.

The letter points out that $5 trillion (162 trillion baht) in global trade transits through the South China Sea each year. They assert that China stands in violation of a 2002 agreement it signed with the Asean countries in which all parties pledged to exercise self-restraint and to avoid actions that could complicate the situation or escalate tensions.

Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the Chinese are taking advantage of the Obama administration's focus on the Middle East: "China understands that where this administration is, it's a place where they can in fact move ahead in the world." 

Asked about the congressional letter, State Department spokesman Jeff Radke insisted that the US is increasing its coordination with countries affected by China's moves and confronting the Chinese leadership privately. "We have consistently and frequently raised with China our concerns over its large-scale land reclamation, which undermines peace and stability in the South China Sea, and more broadly in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.

But James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testified to Congress last month that the Chinese don't seem to be getting the message. He called their actions "aggressive" and said Chinese claims in the South China Sea are "exorbitant".

"Although China is looking for stable ties with the United States, it's more willing to accept bilateral and regional tensions in pursuit of its interests, particularly on maritime sovereignty issues," Mr Clapper said.

The Beijing government has stated clearly that it believes its expansion in the South China Sea is both legal and non-threatening, refusing to address the region's concerns in any substantive way. It complained loudly when the US and India took the relatively innocuous step of issuing a joint statement referring to their desire to address the issue.

No matter the state of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Obama administration's lack of response to China's maritime aggression is worrying. China is testing how far it can push the status quo before the US does something. The Pentagon and Congress are clearly telling Mr Obama the response needs to come before China's takeover of the South China Sea is complete. ©2015 Bloomberg View

Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.

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