What is China doing in the South China Sea?

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On February 22nd two U.S. officials told Reuters that China is building missile-launch pads that can be used to fire surface-to-air missile on two-dozen artificial islands the Chinese military has constructed in the South China Sea. Beijing already has military airstrips on some of these islands so adding surface-to-air missiles would further militarize the area.

China considers the area as part of its territory and began to construct those islands in order to shore up their claims. U.S. and its regional allies say that South China Sea is an international shipping route open to all countries and views these islands as an attempt to obstruct maritime traffic.

In an effort to enforce international law and U.S. policy in support of “freedom of navigation,” America has sent its naval vessels through the area for “routine” patrols.

The latest patrol was from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Vinson arrived just a day after China finished its own naval exercises in the area. Through these patrols and exercises in the South China Sea both countries might be trying to lay a claim to the area.

In the airspace over the Sea the U.S. and China have come close to clashing. Chinese jets have done “inspection” flights over the area and Beijing declared that it wants to turn the South China Sea into an air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

An ADIZ is an “airspace adjacent to but beyond the national airspace and territory of the state, where aircraft are identified, monitored, and controlled in the interest of national security.” By claiming the South China Sea as its ADIZ Beijing could control air traffic within the area.

Besides trying to control the airspace Beijing is also attempting to control passage of military ships. China wants to revise parts of its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law, the change would force foreign submarines to travel on the surface and display their national flags while in what the Chinese claim to be their “territorial waters,” i.e. the South China Sea.

These declarations to restrict the passage of submarines and military aircraft might be attempts to provoke an international incident in order to achieve a propaganda victory by humiliating the U.S. on the high seas. Currently America is the only major power that has sent submarines to the South China Sea.

Spotting submarines might get easier for Beijing because on February 28th the government announced it is building China’s first underwater platform in the South China Sea. The platform is supposed to be for wildlife observation, but given its strategic location and the fact that China has refused to reveal its location the structure may be intended for defense purposes.

Beijing already has experience seizing American submersibles with the Chinese Navy stealing an underwater research drone in the South China Sea last December. The drone was unmanned, but was taken as Military Sealift Command personnel looked on.

Since the U.S. Navy did not prevent them from seizing an underwater drone the Chinese might try to escalate to harassing a U.S. submarine.

China’s continued militarization of the sea-lanes and the airspace in the South China Sea could pose a danger to the U.S. and its allies. With the islands and its air patrols China might be slowly gaining control of these waters.

The islands allow Beijing to slow down or disrupt traffic while its Air Force could likely monitor air traffic over the South China Sea. With such capabilities China might make it harder for the U.S. and its Asian allies to ship goods through the area.

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