The Chinese play the long game. Australia is seeing it in the iron ore sector at the moment, where China is tipping in billions to prop up iron ore production. That’s economics, but the region’s fast-emerging behemoth is playing another long strategic game in its littoral seas, and that is a far, far more dangerous proposition than ensuring resource security.

In 1947, the then Republic of China issued a map with an 11-dash line, outlining its claim to maritime zones, which was later reduced to a nine-dash line under the Communist government (which triumphed in the country’s civil war in 1949). It included vast swathes of ocean — the so-called South Chin Sea — for which China has yet to lodge a formal international claim. But this has not stopped it from acting as though it is its territory.

“9 dotted line” by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — Asia Maps — Perry-Castaneda Map Collection: South China Sea (Islands) 1988

In the past 18 months, China has been rapidly building up its capabilities on the northern edges of the area and has begun reclaiming land from seas that are in dispute, building military installations in the middle of the ocean. Other countries have also attempted to reclaim land in the area, but China has reclaimed over 2000 acres, more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region, the United States says.

In doing so, it is completely thumbing its nose at its neighbours and the international community. The project has aptly been described as the “Great Wall of Sand”.

The simple fact is that China is playing a game of chicken — Asian nations refer to it as “cabbage peeling” — and so far, it is winning. Trying to stop China could go very wrong. Nobody wants that, and China knows it. And so it goes on its merry way.

The issue came to the fore at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue between regional defence ministers and officials, including China, the US and Australia, which was held in Singapore at the weekend.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states,”  US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said at the conference.

The South China Sea is dotted by a few rocky outcrops that form into vague and very long, uninhabitable island chains known as the Spratlys and Paracels along with other reefs and shoals.

Its name aside, Beijing’s claim to much at all of the South China Sea is tenuous. Almost all of the sea lies between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations nations of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Along with Taiwan, there are seven nations in total with territorial claims to various resource-rich islets in these so-called island chains.

There are two reasons everyone gets so excited about the South China Sea. The first is strategic, and it is important to note that it is home to the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Tankers and cargo ships sail to and from two of the world’s three biggest economies in the north — China and Japan — and swing around Singapore and across to the Middle East for energy, and India and Europe for trade in good and commodities.

Ships also come from Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, laden with commodities and agricultural goods.

The other reason that the South China Sea has everyone so excited is that it is home to undersea reserves of oil sand gas. A nascent few have been tapped, but it is thought that the resources are potentially vast.

It’s worth noting in passing that there is an almost identical situation in the East China Sea, where there is a dispute over rocky islands named, depending on whether you are Japan or China, either the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. They are also claimed by Taiwan.

Australian Defence Minister Kevin Andrews insisted in Singapore at the weekend that China stop what it is doing. Hardly likely. It’s not quite a line in the sand, but it should be.

A test of China’s increasingly dubious claims on non-aggression and neighbourliness will come later this year. The Philippines has submitted an arbitration on the issue with its claims to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, to which it, China and all the other claimants are signatories.

China has already set off a burgeoning naval arms race in the region with its aggressive behaviour. Such is the concern of Vietnam, one of the major claimants, that it appears to be preparing to give access to US warships to Cam Ranh Bay, a prize strategic asset that was, ironically, the US naval HQ during the Vietnam War.

At the weekend, Admiral Sun, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese armed forces and China’s delegate in Singapore, declared that his country had reserved its right to establish an air-defence zone around its newly created islands. Good luck with that.

Australian Defence Minister Kevin Andrews rightly said that Australia would ignore this grandiose claim, although in practice that could prove interesting — again, who is going to test that right now? Andrews’ US counterpart echoed his assertion. China is attempting to force recognition of its position by dint of occupation. The parallels with Nazi Germany’s Lebensraum are becoming obvious. After this watery Czechoslovakia, China will no doubt promise it has no further territorial ambitions.

As Nottingham University Professor Steve Tsang noted in an opinion piece in The Guardian yesterday, if you want hard evidence of China imposing its will on the international community regarding issues of sovereignty it look no further than Taiwan, a prosperous democratic nation that has been sidelined solely on China’s say so.

In an interview in Vietnam last night with the BBC, Carter stepped up his rhetoric.

“We will continue to do what we have done for seven decades since World War II ended — by being the pivotal military power in the region, which we are and will continue to be,” he said.

One thing is for sure: this is not going to go away anytime soon. And one gets the feeling it might not end so well.

Peter Fray

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