The Danger of China’s Continued Militarization of the South China Sea


Ever since the 2016 Presidential Election invaded news cycles, not much attention has been paid to the status of China’s involvement in the South China Sea, mainly because the ramifications do not directly affect the general American population. However, the indirect implications of China’s involvement in the highly contested region has far reaching consequences that could prove catastrophic not only to Americans, but to the rest of the world as well. Though in the present moment the island building may appear to be perfectly harmless behavior, China’s militarization of the South China Sea may just be the next Franz Ferdinand.

Aside from the more obvious conflicts that may arise from a military and economic standpoint, China’s island building has serious environmental implications. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, China’s “construction activities” on the Spratly Islands had not and would not “cause damage to the marine ecological system and environment in the South China Sea.” This is, however, completely false. At least 13 square kilometers (about 5 square miles) of coral reefs have been completely covered up and are now dead as a result of China’s dredging processes. Furthermore, when the sediment deposited on these reefs becomes unstable, large plumes of substrate mixed together with oil and other pollutants cloud the surrounding waters, killing marine life and/or destroying their habitats. China’s dredging process has a chain effect on the surrounding environment which is ultimately harmful to the entire ecosystem. Coral reefs are home to many different forms of marine life, millions of small fish, and a wide array of endangered species. Without the reefs to provide shelter and protection, many of these species will die and destroy a complex intertwined foodweb. By partaking in such environmentally unsafe practices, the Chinese are actually shooting themselves in the foot. Since they heavily rely on the availability of fish and other marine life in the South China Sea to feed their enormous populations, it is profound miscalculation to disrupt such an important source of food and income.

From an economic standpoint, disturbances in the South China Sea can result in a number of unintended consequences. However small an impact the Chinese government may claim to have on the sea region contrasts the reality that their actions do have a noticeable effect on fishermen and merchants who rely on the well-being of the marine life for their own survival: a shortage in supply leads to increased prices which are felt most by the lower classes already struggling.

From a global perspective, China’s island building in the South China Sea disrupts vital trade routes. “Over $5 trillion of annual shipping trade passes through the region. U.S.-only imports and exports make up $1.2 trillion of this. The waters allow domestic goods, oil and raw materials to transit to destinations around the world.” If this passage was no longer accessible, the extra distance would invoke “massive fuel costs”, which is equally harmful to the environment.

The legality of China’s island building is also in question, as the Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously ruled in the 2013 Philippines vs. China case that China had no legitimate claim to the Spratlys or other islands in the South China Sea. For all intents and purposes, the court nullified China’s historic nine dash line, which they used as grounds for their presence in the South China Sea. However, China, much like the rest of the world, paid no attention to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling, and continues to develop the reefs in blatant violation of the “Law of the Sea”, signed and ratified by the Chinese. This United Nation Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that marine states “have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment.” Since it was signed by the Chinese, they are obligated to adhere to the Law’s stipulations, per the United Nation’s rules.

The fact of the matter is that nations belonging to the United Nations do not get to exercise selective adherence and only follow UN laws when it is convenient. Violations must be dealt with accordingly, otherwise the United Nations loses its crucial credibility and esteem.

Ultimately, the most crucial reason why action must be taken against the Chinese in the South China Sea, is not because of the island building itself, but rather because of what is being built on the islands. China is militarizing the islands and inhabiting them with “airstrips, ports, radar facilities, solar arrays, lighthouses, and support buildings.” On the Fiery Cross Reef, a 10,000 foot long airstrip has been constructed which will allow for “any type of aircraft” to land and take off. Two other similar airstrips, on the Mischief and Subi Reefs, are also being built, each with the same capabilities as the Fiery Cross Reef. This places China in a position of military advantage in the region, dangerously close to the Philippians and other neighboring nations who lack the powerful military capabilities, both offensively and defensively, to match the Chinese. This could result in a subsequent arms race between the south east Asian nations, turning the region into a metaphorical powder keg, ready to explode with the tiniest spark. This is, of course, less than ideal, and might force the Americans to become involved militarily through their allegiances and multiple military bases in the region.

All of this could potentially happen if the United Nations does not challenge China’s actions in the South China Sea. It is paramount that tensions do not escalate and cause instability in the region, for that could ultimately prove catastrophic for America’s economy which relies so heavily on that of the Chinese. The election is over, so it is time to make another “pivot towards the Pacific” and figure out a solution before it’s too late.

Photo Credits: By Voice of America [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons