A Chinese state-owned newspaper said on Monday that “war is inevitable” between China and the United States over the South China Sea unless Washington stops demanding Beijing halt the building of artificial islands in the disputed waterway. The Global Times, an influential nationalist tabloid owned by the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper the People’s Daily, said in an editorial that China was determined to finish its construction work, calling it the country’s “most important bottom line”.
The editorial comes amid rising tensions over China’s land reclamation in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea. China last week said it was “strongly dissatisfied” after a U.S. spy plane flew over areas near the reefs, with both sides accusing each other of stoking instability. China should “carefully prepare” for the possibility of a conflict with the United States, the newspaper said. “If the United States’ bottomline is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” the newspaper said. “The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as ‘friction’.”
What’s the point of claiming these islands?
Whoever holds the South China Sea islands holds a highly strategic base between several Asian states. If you have a military presence here, you can use it to project power across this region and even implicitly threaten nearby countries that could potentially threaten you — and in this unpredictable part of the world, that can’t be ruled out.
There’s also the possibility that these largely unexplored waters could harbor major oil and gas reserves. China announced a significant gas find nearby in 2014, for example.
The key thing here is that rights over waters — and the natural resources beneath them — are tied under international law to whether your coastline is nearby. So if you can claim ownership of islands in the South China Sea, you can potentially claim any lucrative resources in the waters around them.
Why China’s neighbors are so worried about this
China’s real estate grab at sea is adding to fears among its neighbors over how the country’s rapid rise is altering the regional order.
Their fear is that China, as it grows in wealth and power, will define its role as that of a regional bully that pushes around weaker states. The construction work in the Spratly Islands seems to back that up fear. It sends the message, “We’re going to do what we want here. Who’s going to stop us?”
Over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the project as “work on our own home” and indicated that the island-building isn’t part of some grand plan to build a new world order. “We don’t want to upset the boat,” Wang told reporters.
But this episode is just the latest in a series showing China’s growing aggressiveness in the South China Sea. In 2012, China seized the Scarborough Shoal area of the sea after a three-month standoff with Filipino coastguards. And last year Beijing placed an oil rig near the Paracels, another disputed island chain, sparking deadly riots in Vietnam.
President Obama said last week that he had concerns of China using “its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.”
“We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside,” added Obama.
Construction on the runway appears to have begun in the past few months.