Pivot: China building ‘airstrip capable’ island in disputed waters near Spratly Islands

While defending the administration’s decision to accept Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel’s resignation on Monday, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest cited a variety of pressing new national security challenges which he said demand new blood. Those challenges include the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the spread of the Ebola virus which has strained the governmental capacities of a variety of West African countries to their breaking points, and the crisis in Europe sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Add one more to the list.

According to satellite images obtained by Jane’s Defense Weekly, the People’s Republic of China is busy constructing an island in the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea. That island is described as “airstrip capable,” and will likely serve as a forward positioning station for Chinese military aircraft and other assets.

“The South China Sea is the subject of numerous rival — often messy — territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters,” CNN reported on Monday. “The areas in dispute include fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources.”

The nations of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan also claim sovereignty over that portion of the Fiery Cross Reef where China is reclaiming an island.

china island

“We urge China to stop its land reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities,” an American military spokesman said in a statement. China is prepare to ignore America’s warnings.

“The US is obviously biased considering that the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam have already set up military facilities,” said People’s Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan told a state-run media outlet in China, via the AFP.

According to the analysis of this development in Jane’s, the construction of this island is an extension of Beijing’s dispute with other South Asian powers over the Spratly Islands. The positioning of military assets nearer to this territory aims to change the regional power calculus and to extend the PRC the ultimate advantage:

The work at Fiery Cross thus brings parity but is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants. China has previously shown it is willing to spend blood and treasure to assert its territorial claims in this region. Given its massive military advantage over the other claimants in terms of quantity and quality of materiel, this facility appears purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions, or at least provide China with a much stronger negotiating position if talks over the dispute were ever held.

This development comes just days after American officials crowed over the inking of a deal between Beijing and Washington that would decrease the likelihood of military confrontation between the two Pacific naval powers. This despite the fact that the PLA has developed and deployed two brigades of “carrier killer” missiles, a system that the United States reportedly does not have the means to counter. Adding to the apprehension surrounding China’s regional ambitions, the White House has omitted in its annual reports to Congress developments relating to the PLA’s augmentation of its nuclear arsenal since 2010.

“The complete absence of these reports, combined with the administration’s patterns of conciliatory outreach towards Beijing, make it seem like the Obama administration doesn’t want to put public pressure on the Chinese government for its aggressive military developments designed to threaten the U.S.,” The Hill’s Rebeccah Heinrichs reported earlier this month.

America’s aborted pivot to Asia should redouble in the coming months, but it will be doomed to failure if it does not center on a military component. The only way to deter the aggression of revanchist forces in Moscow and Beijing is to confront them with a set of credible military disincentives which might dissuade them from engaging in bellicosity. In the absence of that policy or something similar, Russia has invaded a European state, and China is laying the groundwork for the acquisition of sovereign territory in the Pacific.

Sound familiar?