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Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

China’s artificial island is a matter of concern

Fiery Cross Reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands, can now be put to use for military operations.

The momentum and extent of land reclamation undertaken by China around rock reefs in South China Sea's Spratly Islands have caused strategic reverberations across Asia — casting an ominous shadow on the existential stability of the region. Beijing has managed to construct an artificial island in the South China Sea over the course of 2014 and continuing still, thereby causing tensions to rise. The sea remains disputed, with Chinese claims being heavily contested by nations including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

The Fiery Cross Reef (part of the Spratly Islands) that was virtually untouched by man-made structures until March 2014, has been transformed into an artificial island exactly in a year's time (March 2015). Satellite images reveal that the first section of this artificial creation has a landing strip, and the 3 km runway constructed by China can be put to use for out-and-out military operations. Additionally, building work in the nearby Subi Reef could potentially create space for yet another 3 km airstrip. More recent aerial surveillance images further show a flotilla of Chinese vessels tasked with land-dredging activities, creating ports and battlements in the region — amounting to it becoming, perhaps, the biggest "reclamation project" — a reported 800 hectares of submerged reef converted into dry land.

These perilous developments are undoubtedly a blatant and provocative move by China to unilaterally alter the status quo in the area and shall radically alter the regional balance of military power. The energy-rich sea lanes in the South China Sea, where more than £3.3 trillion worth of trade passes annually, are more likely susceptible in the eventual possibility of this artificial island being converted by China into a full-fledged military base.

In his just concluded US visit, General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China's most powerful military and defence body, the Central Military Commission, chose to trivialise concerns raised none other than by Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, urging Beijing to stop building artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese argument has always targeted US' involvement in the South China Sea with Fan stating that "...South China Sea issue is but an interlude in Sino-US relations". Arguing that China had the "right to establish military facilities on its sovereign territories", Fan circumvented and deftly chose to link the entire issue to "Chinese sovereignty" — much in sync with President Xi Jinping's affirmation of remaining "... strongly committed to safeguarding the country's sovereignty and defending territorial integrity". Apparently, Fan Changlong is the senior most Chinese military leader to visit Washington since Xi Jinping took over China's leadership.

Tensions have been rife in the backdrop of the G7 Summit declaration, which stated, "...concerned by tensions in the East and South China Seas ... we underline ... unimpeded lawful use of the world's oceans ... and strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large scale land reclamation." Warning that "no foreign country should intervene in the land reclamation" around islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated that it falls within its sovereignty and derided the G7 group.

Sovereignty, in fact, remains the very basic underpinning to the concept to nationalism. The Chinese government seems to be walking on a tightrope on the issue of popular nationalism, recognising it both as a probable burden as well as a source of strength for the Chinese Communist Party. Demonstrations of nationalist sentiment have proven beneficial when the Chinese government and the Party intend displaying resolve on an issue. By virtue of taking on less embodied forms, sovereignty in the age of nationalism has manifested in assertions of states' claiming monopoly within a delimited territory. China appears to be justifying its key tool of military assertiveness backed by economic might to redefine land and maritime boundaries, in the garb of "popular sovereignty" — in which, the very inherent notions of sovereignty become intertwined with the nationalist sentiment.

In what appears an indicative method to rein in mistrust, Li Haidong at China Foreign Affairs University told state-run Global Times that "Fan's visit gave both countries a chance to ... rethink the situation ... both countries' political and military elites to manage the differences ..." This barely appears practically feasible in any sense, in that the capability of the People's Liberation Army will be notched up by means of creating these artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing shall now project its air and naval power through these facilities to achieve coercive outcomes territorially, and simultaneously attempt at marginalising the apprehension of being overwhelmed by any regional mechanism that works outside the periphery of Chinese dominance and influence.

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