The United States is considering an increase in surveillance and patrol flights near the South China Sea, following increased construction activity in the disputed islands by China and the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia– all having claims in the region– sounding the alarm on the Chinese land grab.
Speaking to the Associated Press, US Navy destroyer squadron commodore Capt. Fred Kacher described surveillance flights around the disputed Spratly Islands as “the new normal,” as evidence surfaces that China has been constructing airstrips, artificial islands, and lighthouses for military use in the region. The remark follows an incident in late May in which the Chinese government confronted a US military vessel in the region and threatened physical removal from the area should the vessel stay. The incident was caught on video by a CNN crew traveling with the American military. It was followed by American officials sternly warning China to stop “building sandcastles” in international waters.
The AP reports that the Pentagon “is considering more military flights and naval patrols” as close as 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. In addition to US pressure to cease illegal construction in the Spratly Islands and neighboring reefs, the G-7 group condemned China’s incursions both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where China has laid claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Japan is a G7 member.
Japan has already involved itself in the South China Sea dispute, and reports in Chinese media claim that Japan and the Philippines, which claims part of the Spratly Islands, have scheduled a joint maritime drill in the region to “disturb stability in the region.”
The Chinese government has not yet responded to G-7 demands for it to allow neighboring ships to roam the area. Of the United States, however, the Chinese state newspaper Global Times published an op-ed asserting that “war is inevitable” between China and the United States if the latter insisted that China had no right to invade territories in the South China Sea.
A number of countries claim parts of the South China Sea, and prior to Chinese construction in the region and belligerence against civilian ships, the area was treated as international fishing waters to which a number of countries had access. In addition to the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei have all at some point staked claims in the area.
The government of Malaysia, which has been a relatively quiet player in the unfolding drama, issued a statement on Monday accusing China of belligerence near Borneo. Borneo lies more than 600 miles from the Spratly Islands, and Malaysia has stated that the waters in which China is operating are not disputed: “This is not an area with overlapping claims. In this case, we’re taking diplomatic action,” said National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim.
Unlike activity near the Spratly Islands, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Monday that it was “unfamiliar” with Malaysia’s protest.
In addition to protests from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, some in the U.S. are calling for South Korea to add its voice to that of the aggrieved countries. “It would be encouraging to see South Korea become more vocal and direct in support of customary international law with regard to tensions in the South China Sea, said Heritage Foundation researcher Walter Lohman to Japan’s Nikkei Asian review. South Korea’s Yonhap notes that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel similarly suggested South Korea should involve itself in the dispute recently.
The Philippines and Vietnam will require more international support as they bring their claims to international courts. The Philippines is preparing to bring a case to the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea this week, equipped with a 300-year-old map that shows the Scarborough Shoal– between the Paracel and Spratly Islands– as being a part of Philippine territory. The government is continuing to advocate for access to the region in order to aid its fishermen, who China has forced out of the Spratly Islands and out of business.