On the Surface
Satellite imaging has shown that China is nearing completion of an airstrip on the highly contentious Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. This airstrip will likely strain relations between China and the ASEAN countries, with the United States or Japan possibly entering the fray.
The Spratly Islands Dispute
The Spratly Islands dispute involves competing territorial claims to the Spratly Islands and surrounding reefs. The claimants are China, Brunei, the Phillipines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia. So far, the dispute is locked in a stalemate, although some military pressure techniques have been employed.
The Spratlys have significant economic and strategic importance. The area surrounding the islands holds unexplored reserves of oil and natural gas; it is also a productive fishery. In addition, the Spratlys are located beside major trade routes to Northeast Asia from which the occupying country can monitor other countries’ vessels.
What the Airstrip Means
The Chinese have worked on the airstrip, which is large enough to accommodate heavy military fighter planes, at a breakneck pace. However, China has been steadily reclaiming the Spratlys by dredging up sand from the ocean floor and dumping it upon reefs, constructing military facilities upon several. Officials in Beijing have stated that the islands are to be used for ocean reconnaissance and disaster relief, and will not impede trade in any way.
Still, the incursion is troubling to other countries. The United States and Japan fear that China will control a trade route worth some 4.92 trillion dollars. Additionally, fishing ships from Vietnam and the Philippines have reported aggression from larger Chinese vessels.
Although the Chinese claim that the militarization of the South China Sea is benign, the consternation that it causes to other countries will likely strain China’s relationship with other ASEAN countries, and might even necessitate intervention from the United States or Japan.