China is provoking tensions in the South China Sea by establishing a new city on a disputed island. But with the rule of law and diplomacy failing to provide a solution, what lengths will China go to to protect its territorial claims?
On Friday, China named two senior military generals to head a garrison in the South China Sea - on a group of islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
“This is kind of a chain reaction and it is difficult to say who provoked whom.“
- Weixing Richard Hu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong
The US has criticised the move, saying it is against measures that are seen as potential threats. But calls for dialogue are being ignored and tensions in the most disputed waters in the world are once again escalating.
The city, called Xansha, has a supermarket, a bank and a hospital – but very little else. Indeed, it has only 1,000 inhabitants.
Xiao Jie, the mayor of Xansha, told those attending the ceremony to mark the birth of China’s newest city: “The establishment of Xansha city is a wise decision made by the party and the government of China to protect the sovereign rights of China and to strengthen the protection and the development of the natural resources.”
China seized the Paracel Islands in 1974 after a small but bloody conflict with the then South Vietnamese. Their importance lies in the fact that the waters around them contain rich fishing grounds and potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
“This is not just about who owns what. But it is also about power and status, not only at the regional level but at the international level.”
- Alessio Patalano, the director of the Asian Security and Warfare Research Group
But the Paracel Islands are not the only disputed territory in the South China Sea. The Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal are contested by six countries, including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The South China Sea, which contains hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks, covers an area of over three million square kilometres.
The International Crisis Group, a leading global think tank, has said in a report that the chances of a peaceful resolution to the dispute are diminishing. Without a consensus, it says the tensions in the South China Sea could easily spill over into armed conflict.
So, as China raises the Chinese flag in Xansha, has it also raised the tensions in the South China Sea? And why is China making these seemingly very provocative moves right now?
Joining Inside Story to discuss this are guests: Alessio Patalano, the director of the Asian Security and Warfare Research Group; Weixing Richard Hu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong; and Richard Weitz, the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
|“Multiple sides can cite different histories to justify their claims …. The big puzzle has been that for a decade, China made these claims very strongly initially but then cleverly stopped asserting them so blatantly …. But then for some reason, a couple of years ago, China started becoming a lot more belligerent and aggressive about its claims. And that led the other countries to start becoming more assertive about their counterclaims …. The interesting puzzle is why that change took place.”
Richard Weitz, the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis