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South China Sea: Only One Issue Obama Needs to Address With Xi

At the heart of the current South China Sea dispute are Chinese efforts to turn atolls into military outposts in the Spratly Islands. (Screenshot/YouTube)
At the heart of the current South China Sea dispute are Chinese efforts to turn atolls into military outposts in the Spratly Islands. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Beijing told the world in August that it’d completed its massive reclamation efforts in the South China Sea but satellite photos are showing construction continues.

Needless to say not many people were surprised when commercial satellite photos were released earlier this week revealing large scale reclamation work continuing on Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

I guess you could say it’s business as per usual for Beijing.

See a video from CNN Philippines about those satellite photos below:

Michael J. Green, a senior vice president at Center for Strategic and International Studies and former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said Chinese officials privately told him that China intends to militarize the reefs and islands with planes, antiaircraft weapons and naval vessels.

Green told the Washington Post that this would allow the PLA air force to have “overlapping air control over the South China Sea, and not just from one airfield but from three.”

Green added that “it won’t stop the U.S. policy of asserting freedom of navigation, but it makes it a lot more complicated operation.”

The heavily contested South China Sea is a key international trade route and it’s rich in natural resources. Beijing claims around 90 per cent of it as its own territory. Over the past several years, the PLA has been busy turning atolls into islands capable of being militarized.

See this video for a good wrap up on how the PLA’s land reclamation in South China Sea has been increasing:

Beijing’s reclamation efforts have upset more than one ASEAN neighbor and has raised concerns in Washington.

But it won’t be an easy issue for President Barack Obama to discuss with Chinese President Xi Jinping who visits the U.S. later this month.

“When the Chinese government said it had mainly finished the work, it clearly hadn’t,” said Green. “This is a challenge for the White House,” he added.

“How do they talk about this? Do they say, ‘Don’t militarize these islands,’ knowing that the Chinese will do it anyway? Do they say, ‘Don’t continue construction,’ when it’s obvious that it will continue anyway?” Green asked.

Beijing’s South China Sea antics are but one of the thorny issues that Obama will probably be raising with the Communist Party leader.

A number of Republican presidential contenders have already said that the state dinner with Xi should be cancelled over the South China Sea issue plus other concerns such as cyberspace hacking, new restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations operating in China, intellectual property theft, and continuing differences over human rights states the Washington Post.

Earlier this month White House officials said the U.S. was considering plans to punish Chinese businesses who were benefiting from information stolen by the Chinese state. See below a behind-the-scenes look at how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been stealing secrets from the West:

But Xi will be arriving in Washington with plenty of other things on his mind that don’t bode well for Obama’s chances of success.

“A slowing economy is dangerous for the Communist Party, which is already in the midst of a steady and growing domestic crackdown on dissent, liberal forces, non-governmental organizations and lawyers,” wrote Michael Austin, resident scholar at the think tank American Enterprise Institute.

“Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is widely seen as a tool to eliminate potential Party rivals, thus heightening tensions inside ruling circles. Public dissatisfaction with the government spiked again in August after the massive chemical explosion in Tianjian,” he added.

With all of the above, Austin, says it’s unlikely that the CCP leadership will prove to be a cooperative partner abroad, especially in the East and South China Seas.

“China’s repressive leadership stays in power in part because of its image as a competent technocracy. Should it lose legitimacy due to economic decline, China’s always-present domestic unrest could boil over, leading to even greater domestic repression, and an ever worsening security crisis at home,” he wrote.

“Is America prepared to deal with a China that may decide to divert attention from its failings at home by creating a regional crisis, or one that feels its future security is threatened thanks to its growing weakness, and chooses to lash out while it can?” asked Austin.

“America’s Asian security alliances and partnerships will demand a U.S. response, but deterring Chinese aggression before it takes place is the only successful policy,” he added.

See below an animated infographic made in 2014 which depicts all of China’s territorial disputes.

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