THERE’s no going back. Beijing has won the South China Sea.
New photos and video have for the first time shown the illegal construction of artificial islands in the contested Spratly Islands is all but complete.
What they show in close-up detail confirms the fears raised by analysis of commercial satellite photographs by international affairs experts in the past two years: these are massive, impecabbly constructed and impressively equipped military fortresses.
Beijing has spared no expense in simply seizing these mid-ocean reefs, turning them into islands — and unilaterally declaring them sovereign territory.
It’s a territorial claim rejected by an international court of arbitration in 2016.
But Beijing has ignored the ruling.
Possession is, after all, nine-tenths of the law …
UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Philippines news serviceThe Daily Inquirer has obtained a set of military intelligence photographs of China’s fortresses taken between June and December last year.
They were taken via telescopic sights on surveillance aircraft flying at the very edge of what China claims to be its new territorial airspace — but which is not recognised under international law.
The remarkably clear images show the air fields, armoured hangars, naval docks, barracks, radar networks and defensive structures on the artificial islands are complete — in the final stages of construction.
International think-tank Asia Maratime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has also pointed to the existence of underground tunnels and ammunition storage, missile and anti-aircraft gun positions, military radars and high-frequency surveillance antennas.
And there’s every indication Beijing is poised to surge combat aircraft, troops and ships to the islands to fully militarise their new dominance of the contested sea.
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan are just some of the neighbouring nations whose national territory and economic zones — as defined by the UN under international law established after World War II — are being pushed aside.
The Philippines military photographs focus on Beijing’s bases in the Spratly Islands — such as Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, Subi (Zamora) Reef and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef.
These are Beijing’s largest bases in the area, containing air fields and harbours capable of supporting the largest military aircraft and vessels.
These are now all but complete. The harbours are bursting with civilian and military ships bringing in supplies and personnel.
All that remains is the political spectacle of Chinese combat jets landing on the broad new tarmacs.
In 2002, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an agreement to not build or modify any of the reefs or outcrops in the South China Sea.
Beijing agreed, and embarked on talks to establish a ‘code of conduct’ for negotiating disagreements over who had what rights to which patch of water.
But behind the scenes it was already planning and preparing to arbitrarily undertake one of the largest engineering projects in history: turning the reefs into islands.
This has placed billions of dollars worth of natural resources — including fish, fossil fuels and shipping lanes — under Beijing’s control.
It’s a move that has generated a deep sense of suspicion of Beijing’s motives in the region.
The Inquirer reports Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio as saying government policy to accept China’s “good faith commitment” to not reclaim any more islands or militarise the area as “fantasyland”.
“You don’t rely on the good faith of the thief [who’s trying to break] into your house. If you have that mindset, you rely on the good faith of someone who’s trying to break into your house, that means you’re out [of touch] with reality. You’re in a fantasyland. That’s not how the world is put together. That’s not realpolitik,” Carpio reportedly said.
“If we lose [our maritime space in the West Philippine Sea], we lose it forever.”
Last month, Beijing again asserted its sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Its foreign ministry issued a warning after a US warship entered waters near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, saying it would take all “necessary measures” to safeguard its territory.
Scarborough Shoal is not the site of one of Beijing’s illegal artificial islands. Intense international lobbying is believed to have prevented moves to begin work there in 2016.
But official government mouthpiece the People’s Daily declared the US was disrupting regional stability, prompting Beijing to “enhance and speed up” its military capacity.
China has repeatedly stated it has no intention to move military assets on to its artificial islands.
As recently as 2015, China’s President Xi Jinping said that China “did not intend” to militarise the Spratly Islands.
Now it’s saying they will possess “necessary defence facilities”.
The presence of the destroyer USS Hopper within 22km of Scarborough Shoal on January 17 is also being used as justification for further future military deployment to the island fortresses.
“Such reckless behaviour will only hit a brick wall,” the paper warns.
“Against this backdrop of peace and co-operation, a US ship wantonly provoking trouble is single-minded to the point of recklessness.
“If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: in order to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there.”
Its English language outlet, the Global Times, added: “As China’s military size and quality improve, so does its control of the South China Sea. China is able to send more naval vessels as a response and can take steps like militarising islands.”
China has expanded the size and frequency of its naval and air force activities within the western Pacific in recent months, alarming nations including Taiwan and Japan.
Some missions have even extended close to the major US navy and air force bases on the mid-Pacific island of Guam.
Tokyo and Taipei have called upon Beijing to stop such aggressive posturing.
A Chinese submarine was detected entering Japan’s internationally recognised contiguous zone (24-50km from its mainland coast).
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen also warned frequent movements of Beijing’s long-range bombers and warships around the island were threatening to destabilise the region.
China maintains the goal of bringing Taiwan under its rule after its republican leadership fled there after the Communist revolution in 1946.
China last month dismissed these concerns, with an air force spokesman declaring frequent patrols by its warships and aircraft were the “new normal”.
According to the Chinese government news outlet Xinhua, its navy began operations throughout what it designates as the “First Island Chain” (encompassing Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines) in 2009. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force gained the capability to do so with new long-range aircraft in 2015.
It says such patrols have since increased from “four times a year” to “several times per month” last year.
Earlier this week, foreign ministers from the 10-nation ASEAN group issued a statement addressing Beijing’s expansionist actions.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in the statement that ASEAN “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
The meeting said China has agreed to restart talks on a delayed code-of-conduct over the sea, but Balakrishnan said this was expected to be a “ complicated negotiation”.
“There will be no shortage of very sensitive issues that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of the diplomats, and ultimately an exercise of political will,” he told a media gathering.
The ASEAN ministers agreed to organising a joint maritime exercise with China later this year in an effort to improve co-operation within the disputed region.
By Jamie Seidel
News Corp Australia