China is moving to solidify its claims to some of the most important sea lanes in the world. Beijing has installed missile systems and initiated take-offs and landings by its strategic H-6K bombers on islands it created in the South China Sea. The risk of confrontation between China and regional neighbors in response to such actions is rising, including with Vietnam and the Philippines—although those countries are of course no match for China’s military. A much larger confrontation is brewing between China and the U.S. over what Washington sees as Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviorand potential threat to free and fair maritime travel. Beijing sees the issue rather differently, as an overreaction by the U.S. and others over what it believes is China simply reclaiming what is its historical territory.
On May 21, Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesman for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, issued a statement condemning the recent Chinese military operations involving the contested Paracel Islands. These military exercises involved China’s H-6K strategic bombers (comparable to the Russian Tupolev Tu-16), a serious escalation in the long-simmering issue over territorial claims. The statement read that this new development—this was the first time that the H-6K landed on the Paracel Islands—would ‘increase tensions, cause regional instabilities and are not good for maintaining a peaceful, stable and cooperative environment in the East Sea.’ Vietnam uses the term ‘East Sea’ instead of South China Sea. The Philippines also condemned the military exercises, saying it had ‘serious concerns’ over the issue and would take ‘appropriate diplomatic action.’
In response, China was characteristically blunt, stating ‘the islands in the South China Sea are China’s territory,’ and that ‘the relevant military activities are normal trainings and other parties shouldn’t over-interpret them.’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang then made specific mention of the U.S., which had responded to the news of the H-6K flights from the Paracel Islands by saying ‘China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region.’ Lu Kang said that ‘as for the so-called militarization mentioned by the US, what we do is fundamentally different from the U.S. sending its military aircraft and warships from thousands of miles away to this region and posing a threat to other countries.’
While Vietnam, the Philippines and others are attempting to use the international court system to settle the contested claims, China is creating a new reality. It has built up artificial reefs and atolls to support runways and naval ports. China is not going to abandon these islands, no matter what the international community or courts determine. China has built up similar facilities on the contested Spratly Islands, which are located in the southern region of the South China Sea, installing radar jamming systems as well as YJ-12B anti-ship missiles. The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern over China’s moves but is not in a position to do much about it. The response by the U.S. has been to conduct periodic ‘freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOP) through contested waters. China’s reaction to these FONOPs are becoming more assertive and the risk of confrontation, intentional or accidental, is increasing.