Once again there is a lot of unrest and tension being built up over the military moves of several nations over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The latest tensions came about as China flew its first aircraft onto the man made facility they have been building on Fiery Cross Reef. China was careful to note that the aircraft was civilian in nature and stated it was only a test of the facility’s ability to be able to handle future civilian aviation traffic. Those opposed to China’s apparent intention to dominate navigation in both the water and air in the region believe that it is only a matter of time before military aircraft not only fly in there too but are stationed there permanently.
In defiance and protest over China’s territorial claims, the United States has repeatedly breached, both by air and sea over the last year, what China considers to be its territorial space. They have done everything from sailing some of the most advanced warships they have within the 12 nautical mile limit that China claims around the islands and have also flown powerful B-52 aircraft and sophisticated P-8 intelligence-gathering and attack aircraft into this same supposedly restricted airspace. China has responded to each incident with harsh warnings but so far has not retaliated aggressively to the actions.
Less powerful countries in the dispute have tried resolving the crisis diplomatically. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have lodged official protests in the international court system. In reality, these courts have no military clout to make China leave if they lose any of these international territory dispute hearings that are taking place. Other nations which have claimed all or part of the same disputed territories include Japan, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
The biggest fear the United States has is that, if China is allowed to continue building partially submerged reefs into military bases, they will then be able to project their military power very far from their home shores. This would allow China to dominate and control both sea and air navigation through the area. This could affect trade and commerce in the region – which the United States has a vital interest in and has vowed not to allow to happen.
This has brought tensions in the area to an all-time high and added to the possibility that a limited or more expansive military encounter could take place in these areas in the very near future. The United States has seriously discussed the idea of bringing a second aircraft carrier group into the region and has ratcheted up both the rate and intensity of combined military drills with our allies in the region. Neither the United States nor China show any signs of being willing to back off on their policies in the region at the moment.
It will be interesting to see over the coming months which side takes the next aggressive step in the disputed region and what happens as a response to that. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail and the countries involved seek a diplomatic response to this growing crisis.
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