"The defining strategic engagement of the 21st Century is shaping up"by Robert Fry / January 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: what is the US-China dispute in the South China Sea?
Big ideas of 2015: the Chinese lake
The Korean Peninsular has again caught global attention with what North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has claimed to be the test detonation of a hydrogen bomb. North Korea will continue to play a wildcard role in the affairs of East Asia, but it is further south, in the South and East China Seas, that what might be the defining strategic engagement of the 21st Century is shaping up. It is unusual for strategy to be prosecuted by the dumping of industrial aggregate, but that is exactly what is happening around the Spratly Islands, today. Since 2013, China has been dredging the floor of the South China Sea to create seven artificial islands that now total a surface area of over 3,000 acres amongst the Spratlys’ 600 contested rocks, shoals and islets, ownership of which is claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. A similar dispute exists with Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; taken together, these little local difficulties have the undivided attention of the Americans, for two reasons.
The first is important, but localised, and revolves around an interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For the US (and most of the international maritime community), the high seas exist beyond a universal 12 nautical mile territorial sea limit granted to all coastal states; for China (and a few other non team players like Iran), 200 nautical miles defines an exclusive economic zone around any sovereign oceanic outcrop, even a very large sandcastle. That, of course, leaves a 188 nautical mile radius of ocean available for strategic miscalculation. The second is important, but global, and is about how America will accommodate the strategic ambition of a rising China.
The strategic geography of the Western Pacific is defined by two island chains. The first island chain takes a line…