The Department of Defense has taken notice of China’s activities in the Pacific Ocean. In a speech delivered in Australia, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Harry Harris said that China is busy building a “great wall of sand” as it works on seizing disputed waters in the South China Sea. Said the top official, “China is building artificial land by pumping sand onto live coral reefs — some of them submerged — and paving over them with concrete,” Harris said.
“China has now created over 4 square kilometers [1.5 square miles] of artificial landmass,” he added. Effectively, China is adding to increased tensions in the entire region. By claiming the entire South China Sea, Beijing is putting itself at odds with other nations’ territorial claims in the same waters. China is currently conducting its island-creation program in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as areas claimed by the Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Harris said that China’s campaign can augur confrontation in the region.
China is building a land mass at Hughes Reef in the Spratly Islands, as revealed by satellite imagery. The operations involve dredging the ocean over the last three months to create and island that is now approximately 9,842 feet long and about 984 feet wide. It is likely that the man-made island will soon feature a landing strip suitable for Chinese aircraft. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in 2014 that China intends on “improving the working and living conditions of the people stationed on these islands.”
President Barack Obama famously heralded at the beginning of his term in office what he called a "pivot" by the U.S. toward Asia. Obama, speaking in Australia in November 2014, said that China must “adhere to the same rules as other nations.” He recently visited India as part of his interest in Asia. Consonant with Obama’s warnings, India and Singapore joined the U.S. in issuing joint statements condemning China’s dredging and land reclamation project. Singapore called on “all parties to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, including land reclamation, in the South China Sea.” Singapore called on other nations to rely on diplomacy, in keeping with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos). India issued a similar statement.
China, however, holds itself apart from the Unclos demarcation of the respective areas claimed. China resorts to historical maps to back its territorial ambitions. The Philippines has filed a complaint over the Spratly Islands with the U.N. Court of Arbitration, but China has refused to take the case. For its part, Vietnam has also disputed Chinese oil drilling in the Paracel Islands.
In speaking to Fox, Admiral Harris said that the United States is calling on the disputants to honor the China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Declaration of Conduct, in which all signatories “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability” in the Pacific. To be on the safe side, the U.S. is beefing up its naval presence in the Far East to defend essential sea lanes. Harris said that the Pacific Fleet will account for 60 percent of U.S. Navy forces by 2020. He said, “If any crisis does break out, we’re better positioned to quickly respond.”
“When one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states – the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors – well it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raise serious questions about Chinese intentions,” Harris said.
In a wargame entitled “Pacific Vision,” experts from the RAND Corporation joined U.S. military leaders in 2008 to identify Air Force capabilities to defend U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. In an op-ed in The National Interest, Paul Scharre – of the Center for a New American Security – analyzed the results of the wargame. According to Scharre, “[The RAND study] analyzed a U.S.-China air war over Taiwan made the bold assumption that every air-to-air missile fired from a U.S. F-22 hit a Chinese fighter (100 percent kill rate) and that every Chinese missile missed the U.S. F-22s (0 percent kill rate). In their simulation, the United States still lost the fight.”
In the scenario recounted by Scharre, the U.S. aircraft simply depleted their missiles while China’s aircraft could go after vulnerable command and control and tanker aircraft. Despite the demonstrated superiority of U.S. aircraft, the Chinese through sheer numbers were victorious.
John Tkacik, a former U.S. diplomat who has studied China for decades, told the Washington Free Beacon in February 2015, China's claims to the South China have been voiced ever since the communist take-over in the early 1950s. He pointed out that China invaded islands in the South China Sea in 1974 and have continued. “Over the past 15 years, the Chinese have embarked on this new strategy of massive construction on what had been submerged landforms, and are now in a position to both enforce their claims, not just to the islets themselves.