Earlier this week, US officials indicated that they are set to go through with a plan to sail warships around China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys.

“It’s just a matter of time when it happens,” one government source told WSJ.

Over the course of the last six months, we’ve seen China’s land reclamation efforts go from oddity, to spectacle, to alleged “provocation”, to excuse for war as Washington feels compelled to come to the aid of its allies in the South Pacific who cried foul after it became apparent that this was no “normal” dredging effort.

In short, China has created some 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory and the US claims Beijing is effectively trying to redraw maritime boundaries on the way to establishing new military outposts. For its part, China denies the allegations and has responded with a peculiar mix of veiled threats (tweaking the wording of its official maritime strategy), not-so-veiled threats (telling a US spy plane with a CNN crew on board to “go now”), and humorous propaganda (a series of pictures from Fiery Cross depicting women, puppies, and gardens).

Despite efforts to de-escalate the matter when Xi visited the US this month, Beijing looks set to draw a line in the sand (no pun intended) when it comes to allowing the US to sail warships near the islands. Here’s AFP with more:

Chinese media slammed the US Thursday for “ceaseless provocations” in the South China Sea, with Washington expected to soon send warships close to artificial islands Beijing has built in disputed waters.

Following a meeting of American and Australian officials Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned Beijing that Washington will continue to send its military where international law allows, including the South China Sea.

The remarks were backed by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said the two countries are “on the same page.”

An editorial in The Global Times, which is close to China’s ruling Communist party, condemned Washington’s “ceaseless provocations and coercion”.

“China mustn’t tolerate rampant US violations of China’s adjacent waters and the skies over those expanding islands,” it said, adding that its military should “be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington’s level of provocation,” it added.

The warship or ships would pass within the 12-mile territorial limit China claims around the structures to demonstrate that US commanders do not recognise it.

Such a move, the Global Times suggested, could be a “breach of China’s bottom line”.

“If the US encroaches on China’s core interests, the Chinese military will stand up and use force to stop it,” the paper warned.

There you go. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Obviously, there’s little doubt that China will use these islands for some military purpose. Whether that purpose will be extremely limited (as Beijing has suggested without explicitly acknowledging the militarization of the reefs) remains to be seen.

One question that one might fairly ask here however, is whether the US really needs to sail by the islands just to see if can do so without getting shot at. It isn’t, after all, as though China is on the verge of using the Spratlys as a staging ground for an invasion of the entire South Pacific so one wonders whether it might not be better to wait until there is some legitimate purpose for a pass-by. That way, Beijing can’t point to a deliberate “provocation.”

Whatever the case, we suppose we will see in the next week or so who blinks first.

*  *  *

A little background on the latest developments with accompanying visuals…

Despite the fact that China claimed to have largely completed its dredging efforts in the Spratlys in June, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tells a different story. Here’s what Glaser has to say about a series of new images shown below and available at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative:

China is still dredging in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery of Subi Reef taken in early September shows dredgers pumping sediment onto areas bordered by recently built sea walls and widening the channel for ships to enter the waters enclosed by the reef. On Mischief Reef, a dredger is also at work expanding the channel to enable easier access for ships, possibly for future use as a naval base.

This activity comes in the wake of assertions by China that its land reclamation has ended in the Spratly Island chain. On August 5, during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters, “China has already stopped. You look, who is building? Take a plane and look for yourself.” He did not pledge that China would refrain from construction and militarization on the newly-created islands, however.

Wang Yi reiterated that China’s construction on the islands is mainly “to improve the working and living conditions of personnel there” and for “public good purposes.” To date, however, China’s activity appears focused on construction for military uses. Recently built structures on Fiery Cross Reef include a completed and freshly painted 3,000-meter runway, helipads, a radar dome, a surveillance tower, and possible satellite communication facilities.

Apparent Chinese preparations for building lengthy airstrips on Subi and Mischief raise questions about whether China will pose challenges to freedom of navigation in the air and sea surrounding those land features in the future.

The persistence of dredging along with construction and militarization on China’s artificial islands underscore Beijing’s unwillingness to exercise self-restraint and look for diplomatic paths to reduce tensions with its neighbors, the United States, and other nations with an interest in the preservation of peace and stability in the South China Sea. U.S. calls for all claimants in the South China Sea to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarization have been rejected by China, which views the status quo as unfavorable to its interests.

On the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, Beijing appears to be sending a message to President Barack Obama that China is determined to advance its interests in the South China Sea even if doing so results in heightened tensions with the United States.

And more from Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS and AMTI director.

Earlier this year, the addition of an airfield on Fiery Cross Reef provided a more southerly runway capable of handling most if not all Chinese military aircraft. And in June, satellite photos indicated that China was preparing to lay down another runway at Subi Reef. New photos taken on September 3 show grading work at Subi, providing further evidence that runway construction there is planned. Meanwhile work at the Fiery Cross airfield is well advanced, with China recently laying down paint.

Satellite photos taken on September 8 contain an unanticipated development, indicating that China may be preparing to construct another airstrip at Mischief Reef. These images show that a retaining wall has been built along the northwest side of the reef, creating a roughly 3,000-meter rectangular area. 


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