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Naval confrontations in South China Sea, as China builds and militarize disputed islands, US calling them illegal and rival territorial claims over Strategic Interests

China, has nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two US officials told Reuters. Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a December report that China apparently had installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the islands it has built in the South China Sea.


Trump’s administration has called China’s island building in the South China Sea illegal. In his Senate confirmation hearing last month, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson raised China’s ire when he said Beijing should be denied access to the islands it is building in the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier and guided-missile destroyer to patrol the South China Sea over the weekend, for the first time since President Trump took office, military officials confirmed.


China dispatched its own fleet for scheduled drills. The missile destroyers Changsha and Haikou and the supply ship Luomahu carried weeklong exercises. The fleet includes three helicopters and marines on board. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the drills involved naval aviation forces and military garrisons from the Spratlys and the Paracels, as well as elements of the Beihai and Donghai fleets. They practiced air defense, escorting, anti-terror, anti-piracy and defensive operations under real combat conditions, Xinhua said.


China is building Fiery Cross Reef, or Yongshu Reef in the Spratly Islands, into its largest joint military base for its navy and air force in the South China Sea, according to the latest issue of Kanwa Defense Review. The monthly magazine reported that satellite images of the military facilities on the islet show a 3,000-meter runway and four large hangars measuring 34 meters by 25 meters — the same size as the ones on Yongxing Island, also known as Woody Island, the largest island in the Paracel group. Kanwa said these hangars will have been built to house China’s high-tech anti-submarine and early warning aircraft. Two ramps — measuring 535 meters and 626 meters, respectively — are very likely designed to accommodate fighter planes, according to the magazine, which noted that up to 24 fighters can stay on the ramps and that hangars will likely be constructed nearby. Kanwa further said that ground-to-air missile launch sites could be added around the airport.


On the outskirts of the runway are located HF/DF antennae that are 30 meters in radius, and look like the U.S. military’s AN/FLR-9 array for searching for targets in the air and at sea. In addition, a landing ship has been docked at the military port, which is being expanded, Kanwa noted.


Since 2014, China has been building islands in the middle of the South China Sea. What were once underwater reefs are now sandy islands complete with airfields, roads, buildings, and missile systems. In less than two years, China has turned seven reefs into seven military bases in the South China Sea, one of the most contentious bodies of water in the world.


Philippines said it was “gravely concerned” that Chinese boats were preparing to build structures at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, upsetting the diplomatic peace at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Vientiane. The South China Sea has been the subject of numerous rival territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, comprised of a panel of five experts in maritime law, ruled that there was no legal basis to China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. The court ruled found that China’s Nine-Dash Line claim was “incompatible” with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Court issued a scathing report on the case, which was brought by the Philippines, finding that “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.”


China’s foreign minister called the July 12 verdict a “farce.”  State-run Xinhua news agency said that the “law abusing tribunal” issued an ill-founded award on the South China Sea arbitration. China’s Foreign Ministry said that “China solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.” China had not participated in the court proceedings and has said repeatedly that it would not honor its decision in the case.


South China Disputes

China argues it has a historical claim to the South China Sea, dating back to naval expeditions in the 15th century. After World War II, the Japanese Empire lost control of the South China Sea, and China took advantage of the moment to reclaim it.


Taiwan’s defence ministry has said the missile batteries were set up on Woody Island in the Paracels chain, which has been under Chinese control for decades but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.


One of the United States’ most senior ex-military officers has warned that China and the US risk open conflict over the South China Sea because of basic misunderstandings between the two nations. The former head of National Intelligence and US Pacific Command, retired Admiral Dennis Blair said, “Both sides are locked into opposing positions that make it almost impossible to reach a compromise.”


The US military will continue to “fly, sail and operate” anywhere that international law allows, Barack Obama’s spokesman said , responding to reports of China’s deployment of surface-to-air missile launchers on a disputed island in the South China Sea. A patrol by a US navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels in Jan 2016, earning Chinese condemnation. America has also conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands built by China in the Spratly islands chain, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.


“The US interest is not in particular claims on any of the land features but rather in the continued free flow of commerce in this region of the world. That has significant consequences for the global economy and significant consequences for the US economy,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.


China cautioned the U.S. against taking any actions that might be considered provocative, While Beijing supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the U.S. must be careful in how it uses that right, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in the report. “Freedom of navigation does not give one country’s military aircraft and ships free access to another country’s territorial waters and airspace,” Hua is quoted as saying in the Xinhua report.


China’s neighbors are concerned that Beijing is working to entrench a military presence in the South China Sea to reinforce – and make permanent – its claims. Others believe it’s a much more subversive activity, giving China the ability to claim a vast economic exclusion zone where it could control shipping, fishing, energy production, and even air travel over one of the busiest transportation corridors in the world. A US State Department spokesman says the US does “not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability”.


But China insists it is acting within its rights. “China’s work on the [Spratly] islands mostly serves civil purposes apart from meeting the needs of military defence. China is aiming to provide shelter, aid in navigation, weather forecasts and fishery assistance to ships of various countries passing through the sea,” a commentary carried prominently by Xinhua news agency on Thursday read.


In the past sinking of Vietnamese boat, by a Chinese, near the Paracel Islands over $1 billion oil-rig in disputed waters led to street protests and the Anti-China riots in Vietnam. These resulted in death of many people, hundreds of hospitalizations and millions of dollars’ worth of damages. In the past too, Vietnam has accused China of harassing their oil survey ships and deliberately severing the cables of an oil and gas survey vessel in two separate instances in the past . Recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry official Yi Xianliang has also accused Vietnamese vessels of ramming Chinese ships more than 1,500 times since the dispute began.


There is also dispute between China and the Philippines over natural gas deposits, especially in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located eighty nautical miles from Palawan. Oil survey ships operating in Reed Bank under contract; have increasingly been harassed by Chinese vessels.


South China Sea’s Strategic Importance

The South China Sea possesses a huge potential energy resource. It has been estimated that the Seas of East Asia, the South China Sea, and the archipelagic states of Southeast Asia possess billion barrels of oil as well as natural gas in the trillions of cubic feet. Increasing demands for energy, particularly in China which is now the second biggest economy in the world, and the reality of the rapidly disappearing sources of fossil fuels and oil reserves, have prompted East Asian and Southeast Asian states to turn to the sea for their energy needs. The area of the South China Sea is also common fishing ground for all claimants, the region constituting around 8% of the world’s total commercial fishing output.


Most importantly, 30 percent of the world’s shipping trade flows through the South China Sea to the busy ports of Southeast Asia. It’s an incredibly important strategic area, and five countries currently claim some part of it.

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