After months of alarming neighboring Vietnam and the Philippines with illegal constructions in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, the Chinese government announced the construction of two lighthouses in the region, complete with groundbreaking ceremonies. The move indicates China has abandoned any attempt to continue their constructions surreptitiously, particularly in light of American State Department warnings to stay within their sovereign territory.
The Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet, reports that the lighthouses will be built on the Huayang Jiao and Chigua Jiao islands in the Spratlys, known in China as the Nansha Islands. The lighthouses will provide “passing vessels with efficient guidance and substantially improving navigational safety in the South China Sea,” according to foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“Building lighthouses is indeed a move to satisfy international and regional needs, while the construction is lawful as China is building on its own territory,” said Wang Xiaopeng, an expert in maritime and border studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article announces not only the construction of the lighthouses, but a full ceremony to commemorate groundbreaking.
Previous constructions in the South China Sea by the Chinese government have been done quietly and only later discovered by satellite imagery. Those constructions were later declared to be military projects, while the lighthouses are being declared the first civilian construction in the Spratly Islands by the Chinese government. As China has previously harassed and attacked ships and planes in the region, including American vessels, the lighthouses could arguably be considered tools with which the Chinese government could better identify foreign vessels with the intent of antagonizing them.
In addition to the announcement of the new construction, the Chinese government released a policy document intended to announce even more construction in the Spratly Islands, and flatly deny multiple international claims that they are not located in Chinese sovereign seas. As Reuters notes, the document highlighted intentions by the Chinese government to increase “open seas protection” and warned other nations to refrain from “provocative actions” on the region. Reuters notes that the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all dispute China’s claims to the Spratlys.
The United States has repeatedly warned China to stay away from the region, and is reportedly considering strengthening its military presence there to dissuade China from further construction. “As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, last week. A State Department spokesperson replied to a question on China’s new policy paper Tuesday by warning the Chinese government “to use its military capabilities in a manner that is conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Global Times has responded to American warnings by stating that “war is inevitable” with America if they do not accept Chinese expansion. “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” read an editorial in the newspaper.
Xinhua, which is considered a less extreme pro-government state publication than Global Times, published a column Tuesday explaining the Maoist concept of “active defense” with regard to the South China Sea. The U.S. Naval Institute defines active defense as “the basic assumption propelling Chinese strategy since the Opium Wars of the 1840s… that China will start any conflict as the weaker belligerent. Chinese forces resort to the defensive so they can buy the time they need to turn the tables and prosecute a devastating counteroffensive.”
“The philosophy of China’s active defense strategy can be boiled down by an expression used in the white paper,” write the editors of Xinhua, “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” It quotes the policy paper as arguing: “some of China’s offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”
In another effort to boost their image as the peaceful actor in the South China Sea dispute despite the near complete lack of action– other than protest– on the part of the Philippines, Vietnam, and the United States, Xinhua published two columns this week highlighting diplomatic relations with Malaysia and Indonesia.