International friction over China building and fortifying airbases on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is leading to a confrontation between the United States and China over the issue of international maritime borders and territorial sea limits.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has vigorously defended the 12-nautical mile limit of territorial sea claims based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Conflicts in Libya, the Persian Gulf and other areas have referenced the territorial sea claim to ensure the safety of neutral shipping and prevent aggressive behavior from regional powers.
Chinese expansion into the South China Seas has been an ongoing process for the last decade. The Chinese military and government act aggressively until another nation calls them on it. The Chinese claim they will back down, but never fully do. This behavior leads us to the current situation.
The Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly chain has been built up and an airstrip – usable by the Chinese military – has been constructed on the reef. Fiery Cross has been claimed by China, Vietnam, Brunei and other political states in the area. The Chinese built a remote weather station on the island in 1987 which led to skirmishes with Vietnam who also wanted to build on the island.
In late 2014, dredging and construction on the airstrip and a potential deep water harbor for the island began. Condemned by the international community, China has responded by claiming the reef, as well as most of the South China Sea, is within the traditional borders of the state. The notorious nine-dash line has been used for these types of claims before, but it appears that China is not backing down this time.
Most of the area that has been claimed by China lies outside of both the 12-nautical mile limit and the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone established by the United Nations. China has put forward claims that it has historically ruled the area. Claims that have been disputed by Vietnam and other countries.
The United States has responded by saying they would conduct Freedom of Navigation exercises in and around Fiery Cross Reef. With the current buildup of the Chinese military, this could create a situation in the South China Seas that the United States and other international players could not contain.
Although the Chinese do not really have a lawful claim to the reef, by occupying and building it up they hope to present a situation where it will cost more to throw them off than it would to let them stay. Problematically, if allowed to remain, the Chinese have shown that they will continue to expand to other reefs and islands, potentially destabilizing the entire region.
Worse, if the United States conducts the Freedom of Navigation exercises and provokes a military response from the Chinese, it could create an even larger conflict. There is no upside to an armed conflict, even of a limited nature, with China.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.