It’s time to get the facts straight on the military activities of all countries in the Spratly Islands before Washington intensifies its confrontation with China over Beijing’s intentions.
The headlines have been about China’s reclamation of some 2,000 acres from the South China Sea over the past 18 months and building military facilities on them.
Less attention has been paid — except by the Chinese — to smaller but similar reclamation and military construction efforts over the years and currently by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, related to islands they claim in the Spratlys.
Taiwan, for example, has claimed Itu Aba Island since 1955, one of the largest in the Spratlys. It served as a Japanese submarine base during World War II and today tankers carrying most of China’s imported oil pass nearby.
In 2008, Taiwan announced a new 3,900-foot airstrip had been completed on the island that would support search and rescue operations. It also could support military aircraft, as Taiwan’s president proved that year when he landed in a C-130 transport plane.
The island now has a radar station, meteorological center and permanent troop support facilities for a Taiwanese marine unit.
More recently, Taiwan has begun a modest reclamation effort near the airstrip, which may be part of a proposed $100 million port designed to handle frigates and coast guard cutters.
Vietnam also has been expanding its holdings in the Spratlys, which lie just seven miles east of Taiwan’s Itu Aba Island and were first occupied in 1975. On Sand Cay and West London Reef, Vietnam has been reclaiming land from the sea to build military facilities but at about one-tenth the size of China’s project.
West London Reef’s eastern sandbank has been expanded by two square miles and work on a harbor facility is underway, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). On the southern portion a fourth structure is joining three multi-story military facilities. Another is going up in the northern portion.
A surveillance facility sits at the eastern side of Sand Cay with a heliport next to it. The Vietnamese are also constructing a pier and a complex of defense structures, including what may be artillery emplacements bunkers, according to the CSIS .
On the Spratly Island of Zhongye Dao, the Philippine government has had a military airstrip since 1975 known as Ranudo Air Field. The Philippine air force announced in June 2014 that $11 million had been allocated to upgrade the 4,200-foot runway and navy port facilities. Aside from the air field, which has been able to accommodate C-130s since 2002, the island has a military detachment and small civilian population.
Malaysia is also in the Spratly picture. In early 2013, the Chinese held naval exercises near James Shoals, a reef some 50 miles off Malaysia’s Borneo state of Sarawak, which Malaysia claims and is considered part of the Spratlys. In October 2013, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein announced his country’s plan to establish a marine corps that would be stationed at a new naval base to be constructed at Bintulu in Sarawak.
On Saturday, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter acknowledged, “It’s true that almost all the nations that claim parts of the South China Sea have developed outposts over the years . . . of differing scope and degree.”
Although Carter described China as “one country [that] has gone much further and much faster than any other,” he added, “We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.”
Carter meant China and everyone else, but that may prove difficult for the United States to accomplish.
As the defense secretary pointed out, as Asian-Pacific “nations develop, as military spending increases, and as economies thrive — we expect to see changes in how countries define and pursue their interests and ambitions.”
The United States, for example, is increasing its military presence in the area, though its mainland is 7,000 miles away and its closest states, Alaska and Hawaii, are 4,500 and 6,000 miles away respectively.
On Wednesday, Carter pointed out the “tremendous” U.S. forces already in the region: more than 350,000 military and civilian personnel, nearly 2,000 aircraft and 180 naval vessels.
On Saturday, he said, “As the United States develops new systems, [the Defense Department] will continue to bring the best platforms and people forward to the Asia-Pacific.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese in their military white paper released Tuesday took a different view of the U.S. presence and its activities. In the paper, Beijing took aim at “some external countries” — no names mentioned — that “are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs,” along with “a tiny few [who] maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”
Should Americans be surprised that China says it is reorienting “from theater defense to trans-theater mobility,” from solely “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection” and moving from “territorial air defense to both [air force] defense and offense?”
The Defense Department’s report on China’s military, released May 8, calmly says, “China seeks to ensure basic stability along its periphery and avoid direct confrontation with the United States in order to focus on domestic development and smooth China’s rise.”
If true, it appears that Carter will prove correct when he said Wednesday in Hawaii: “We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.