As the world dealt with other crises, China increased its presence in the disputed South China Sea this year, according to a new Chinese government report.
While the Trump administration has addressed Chinese expansionism in the region, even going so far as to carry out multiple freedom-of-navigation operations and bomber overflights in the area, the U.S. has been noticeably preoccupied with the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. China appears to have taken advantage of that distraction and is tightening its grip on the contested islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s extensive claims to the South China Sea were discredited last year by an international arbitration tribunal, yet China continues to assert its dominance in the region, reclaiming thousands of acres of land and building a mixture of civilian facilities and military outposts to strengthen its position in these tense waters.
“The course of construction is moving ahead steadily and a series of striking results have been achieved,” a report published on a Chinese website run by the National Marine Data and Information Service and the People’s Daily Overseas Edition revealed, adding that Chinese projects in the area have “completely changed the face of the South China Sea’s islands and reefs.”
New Chinese facilities constructed in 2017 span a total area of 290,000 square meters and include underground storage areas, administrative buildings, and large radar installations, the report introduced. China has also boosted local defense capabilities through the deployment of new troops, increased patrols, and improved combat drills.
Many of the islands and reefs in the Paracels and Spratlys, where China’s presence is the most pronounced, are already equipped with military air assets, surface-to-air missiles, and point defense weaponry, according to reports from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank.
In response to international complaints, Beijing argues that it can do what it wants on its own territory, asserting that threats from the U.S. increase the need for a strong defensive position in the region. “If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang asked late last year. “The necessary military installations are mainly for self-defense and are fair and legal.”
The new government report explains that China has “significantly expanded the area” of the islands and reefs it occupies in the South China Sea, a reference to land reclamation. Evidence, specifically the massive dredging ship dispatched to the region earlier this year, suggests that China plans to continue its land reclamation activities in the contested waters next year. The ship is called the “magical island-maker” by the institute that designed it.
“The area of the South Island reef will be further expanded,” the Chinese government report explained.
The South China Sea, which is claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, is a strategically-significant waterway through which more than $5 trillion in trade passes annually. While the U.S. asserts that Chinese activities in the region threaten regional stability, China blames U.S. meddling in regional affairs.
“Some foreign media and governments (a typical veiled reference to the U.S.) continue to hype China’s moves in this region, stirring unnecessary worries from neighboring countries and posing a threat to China’s island-building activities,” the state-run People’s Daily wrote Monday.
This report, by Ryan Pickrell, was cross posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.