China’s massive land reclamation in the South China Sea comes long after rival claimants had built their own airstrips on disputed islands in the region, but could be a sign that Beijing is seeking to project its military power across the whole region, experts said in a recent report.
“Beijing’s activities are on a scale that vastly exceeds what any of its rival claimants are capable of doing,” the U.S.-based Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in an article on its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website.
It said China’s island building and airfield construction at Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly, or Nansha, island chain “appears aimed not only at strengthening its sovereignty claims, but also at extending its ability to project power into the South China Sea.”
While neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines had long ago built their own airfields in the area, Beijing’s facilities seem clearly aimed at furthering its military reach, it added.
Beijing on Thursday rejected criticisms of its activities in the region, instead accusing the United States of “militarizing” the disputed maritime region with spy flights.
Defense minister spokesman Yang Yujun said the U.S. government and military officials have shown “double standards” in criticizing Chinese construction on islands in the South China Sea, and that an increased U.S. military presence is bad for regional stability.
"The U.S. makes irresponsible remarks about China's rightful activities on its own soil,” Yang said. “This is the a classic case of double standards. We urge the U.S. to stop making such seemingly fair, but false comments.”
He said Washington had recently beefed up its military alliances and enhanced its military presence, and frequently conducts joint military exercises, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
According to the defense ministry, the Nansha (Spratlys) island reclamation project, which includes a 3,000-meter aircraft runway, is aimed at “maintaining the safety of navigation” in the region.
But the CSIS article, penned by Michael S. Chase, a senior political scientist at RAND who specializes in Chinese military modernization, and by former U.S. naval intelligence officer Ben Purser, said the Fiery Cross Reef airfield is seen by many as a bid by China to show its regional muscle.
“Even if China really sees itself as undertaking legitimate activities to protect its rightful interests, it should come as no surprise that China’s rival claimants, as well as the United States and other countries in the region, see Beijing’s island building and construction activities, like Fiery Cross Reef airfield, as efforts to improve China’s abilities to bully its neighbors,” they wrote.
“In fact it would not be an unreasonable conjecture to say that some might even consider the process of improving these abilities to be, in and of itself, a bullying tactic.”
New York-based Hu Ping, editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is enjoying a sense of growing national confidence.
“They have decided to do away with the old policy of keeping a low profile because the national and military leadership believe that China is now a world-class economy and a major military power,” Hu said.
“[Late supreme leader] Deng Xiaoping’s policy was never that China should remain peaceful forever, but that it should expand its military reach once it had become a major power.”
According to Hu, President Xi Jinping is largely following Deng’s maxim with a more aggressive foreign policy today.
“Now, they are taking a more aggressive stance towards their neighbors on the world stage,” he said.
Recent reports and photographs show that China has constructed six man-made islands in the region, including harbors, housing, warehouses, and runways.
Yang Liyu, retired professor of East Asian Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said that he believes the construction drive is part of the People’s Liberation Army’s regional military strategy.
“They want to create an air and naval military base for themselves to advance a bit further into the South China Sea,” Yang said.
“They are doing this mainly to strengthen their claims to sovereignty over those island chains.”
Ran Bogong, retired politics professor at Toledo University, agreed, saying the rising tensions among China’s smaller neighbors are understandable.
“The reason China is building these man-made islands is that it has so far lacked a large enough aircraft carrier to serve as a base for its fighter jets,” Ran told RFA.
“[This construction program] will allow China to use these islands as an unsinkable aircraft carrier to project its military power into the South China Sea,” he said.
In May, China's defense ministry said it would boost its maritime presence as part of an "active defense" strategy in the wake of growing regional tensions surrounding disputed island chains, while upgrading its technology to prepare for “counterattack."
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy will extend its reach, shifting focus from defending its coastal waters to the protection of Chinese interests farther afield, the government said in a 9,000-word white paper issued by the country's cabinet, the State Council.
U.S. officials have expressed concern over a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, while Beijing has said that the controversial island-building is no different from ordinary construction work like road-building.
Analysts say the construction work seems to be a direct response to the U.S. State Department's "pivot to Asia" policy of continued security focus on the region, and that regional military clashes could follow.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.