China have told the US that they will use military force if the US go ahead with their 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.
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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.