This has been behind my re-tweeting a number of James Kraska's tweets on the legal aspects of China's aggressive activity in the South China Sea in "developing" islands in contested waters.
How do we know their intent? As have many others, I have watched the CNN footage here. China is being very assertive. None of the local countries affected by this aggression are strong enough to muster any sort of response to this bully-boy tactics.
Now comes this Reuters piece, written by William Johnson, "Why a forceful U.S. response to China’s artificial island-building won’t float" which questions whether the downsized U.S. Navy (and by extension, the U.S. government) has the "wherewithal" to do anything except rely on "diplomacy" to deal with this Chinese strategy.
Well, you can bet the Chinese have counted on that as they have moved forward.
The question then becomes how best to deal with this possibility. Today the United States doesn’t have the resources in place for a major effort in the area unless it is willing to take some very great risks.
China's dotted line claim in the SCS
More irksome (at least to me) is this analysis:
In order to justify an aggressive approach, the United States must determine that the creation of these islands is threatening some vital U.S. interest. The claim that the new islands are disrupting the United States’ freedom of navigation is a red herring. To date, China has done nothing in the South China Sea to disrupt shipping. It has countered activities by other countries who assert their ownership and control in the region, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, and has asserted its own ownership and control by intercepting fishing vessels and placing oil rigs in the area. Yet none of these actions have disrupted shipping in the region. It is disingenuous for the United States to claim that by using military force to counter the island-building, it is asserting the freedom of international shipping to sail close to rocks and submerged reefs — an action no merchant vessel is likely to take.So, If I understand Mr. Johnson correctly then, there is no threat until China finishes its new "island wall" with bases that it will assert extend its national waters and then begins to exercise its new "right" to keep those waters free and clear of unwelcome guests - like the U.S. Navy.
Another flawed justification for U.S. military involvement is to defend peace and stability in the region. There have so far been no major military confrontations in the disputes between the five other countries that lay claims to the South China Sea. Journalists as well as President Obama argue that this is simply because the smaller countries are afraid to confront China due to an imbalance in military might. While this imbalance exists, it isn’t a reason for the United States to step in. The United States has taken no position on any of the territorial claims, and has urged the parties to settle their disagreements peacefully. As long as the disputing countries are not coming to blows, the United States would be rash to risk a fight with a nuclear-armed China over China’s pursuit of its claims.
A final hollow justification for military action is that the United States needs to reassure its partners and allies in the region.***
Well, then, wow. Just wow.
I've been involved in some "freedom of navigation" actions like that shown in the CNN video. In this case, I would consider them to be the absolute minimum activity that the U.S. needs to undertake to keep the air/sea/subsea areas that these new islands might threaten from becoming something more than just a verbal threat.
Some nice analysis by Dr. Kraska in his "How China Exploits a Loophole In International Law in Pursuit of Hegemony in East Asia".
China's playing the long game for all it is worth. The U.S. needs to step up its response.
UPDATE: Another ally in the area has concerns in the SCS as set out by Bonnie Glaser in "High stakes for Australia in limiting China's South China Sea incursions":
China is seeking to exercise greater control over the waters and airspace in ways that pose threats to all nations that have interests in preserving freedom of navigation, international law and norms, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peace and stability in the South China Sea.