CHINA’S land reclamation in the South China Sea may be tapering off for now but the implications of its actions will run as deep as its ability to project power further into the Western Pacific. Yes, China has insisted that it built its artificial islands solely for defensive purposes (and it has not mentioned the wealth of fish stocks and the rich reserves of undiscovered oil and gas that the South China Sea holds) but this has done little to allay anxieties in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, especially when they take into account what else China has been constructing on these relatively fresh patches of land. For example, China began reclamation work on Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratlys off the Philippines coast in 2014.
Today, the resulting island supports a 3km runway that will handle Chinese longrange bombers just as easily as the more benign surveillance or cargo planes. China has erected radar stations and deployed surface to air missiles and it is also building deep-water port facilities with the potential to support submarines as well as its aircraft carrier task force. In response, countries in the region have strengthened their military relationships with one another and with the larger powers of the United States, France and Britain. There will be joint patrols between some of these nations in the South China Sea and a long-abandoned military base in Subic Bay, Philippines, has reopened. All this to go with the other developments brought about by the United States’ four-year-old pivot to the Pacific or rebalance to Asia.
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