Regional silence drowns out Vietnam’s voice as China militarizes disputed islands

By Dien Luong   June 15, 2017 | 07:50 am PT
Regional silence drowns out Vietnam’s voice as China militarizes disputed islands
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo
China plows ahead with its island-building spree while continuing to wield economic and military clout in the region.

Vietnam has yet again condemned China for its construction of manmade island outposts in the South China Sea. But analysts say such protests have just proved fruitless against the backdrop of Beijing unrelenting in staking its claims in the waters both countries claim as their own.

Reuters on Thursday quoted a Pentagon report as saying that China is currently focused on outfitting its three largest outposts — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands, a disputed island chain in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.

Beijing has equipped those outposts with military infrastructures, including airfields with runways measuring at least 8,800 feet, water and fuel storage, port facilities, 24 fighter-sized hangars, communications facilities and barracks and administration buildings, according to the Pentagon's annual assessment of military and security development of China.

Beijing has moved on to building infrastructure on some of the larger islands, the report said, as cited by Reuters. Once the facilities are complete, China can house up to three regiments of fighter jets in the Spratly Islands.

According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the three air bases and another on Woody Island in the Paracels, another island chain in the South China Sea, will give Chinese fighter jets the ability to operate over almost the entire flashpoint waters, as well as the radar surveillance coverage of almost the entire region from its facilities on the large and smaller outposts.

Vietnam has always contested the legitimacy of the outposts and it did so again on Thursday. Le Thi Thu Hang, Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a regular press briefing that any activity by a foreign country in the Spratlys and the Paracels without Vietnam’s permission is illegal and cannot change the fact that Hanoi has sovereignty over those archipelagoes.

“As a global and regional power, China needs to act responsibly and constructively in maintaining peace and stability in the region and the East Sea in accordance with international law,” Hang said.

China claims almost 90 percent of the potentially energy rich ocean despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. The waters are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place those who control them in league with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.

Since 2014, China has ramped up a number of land reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands, a move that has pitted it again Vietnam and the Philippines. Despite a raft of diplomatic protests including an international lawsuit brought by the Philippines, China has forged ahead with its island-building spree.

It is in this context that Vietnam’s latest protest on Thursday “is not going to stop China from building and militarizing” the Spratly Islands, Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based analyst, said.

Last July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the flashpoint waters in a case brought by the Philippines in 2013. Beijing has since snubbed the ruling, calling it a “farce”.

“China's view on the Hague ruling appears to be similar to what major powers do when an international court rules against them. That is, just ignore the ruling,” Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, said.

Given that there is not an enforcement mechanism of the ruling, “China will continue to ‘push the buttons’ and see how far it can go,” McCornac said. “This continues to be China's strategy.”

After the ruling, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has indicated that his country would be willing to begin direct talks with Beijing, with negotiations to cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Vietnam and the Philippines are two countries that have been directly affected by the lingering dispute in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

At a regional summit in April, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reiterated the importance of “maintaining peace, stability, security, and freedom of navigation and over-flight” in the South China Sea but stopped short of the arbitral ruling.

The Agence France-Presse, citing sources in the diplomatic community, said at that time that the Chinese embassy in Manila requested the Philippine government not mention international law in the statement and the removal of the phrase “respect for legal and diplomatic processes,” an apparent reference to the arbitral ruling.

That was not the first time ASEAN has avoided mentioning the ruling in its joint statement in a region where China has been wielding its economic and military clout more overtly than usual.

“China must be feeling very good right now. ASEAN presents no threat,” Abuza said. “That leaves Vietnam really isolated.”

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