China’s ongoing quest to militarize islands in South China Sea is playing into U.S. Asia policy

During his flight this week to Vietnam, Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed renewed concerns about China’s continued militarization of islands in the South China Sea, which the U.S. and regional allies see as a direct threat to international commerce.

“We remain highly concerned with continued militarization of features in the South China Sea,” Mattis said, adding that Beijing is also using ‘predatory economics’ via its “Belt and Road Initiative” to control other countries.

Overtly, China’s Belt and Road is an infrastructure investment program of sorts, allowing countries to develop projects that are mutually beneficial such as new port facilities. But the upgrades come with strings: Beijing finances the projects but the countries are then in debt to Bejing.

The U.S. defense chief noted that the initiative includes loans “where massive debt is piled on countries that fiscal analysis would say they are going to have difficulty, at best, repaying in the smaller countries.”

As for U.S. foreign policy regarding China, Mattis said Washington was not attempting to “contain” the Asian giant but rather seeking a more reciprocal relationship.

“We seek a relationship with China that’s grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty, and that means respect for international rules and for all nations’ sovereignty, whether they’re large or small,” Mattis noted.

As for the militarization of the South China Sea islands, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles along with sophisticated electronic jamming equipment, the latter of which was added recently.

A senior official at the Pentagon said in June that China has deployed the YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles that can target warships as far as 340 miles away. In addition, China has added either the HQ-9A or HQ-9B long-range surface-to-air missiles with a range up to 184 miles, the Washington Free Beacon reported.

“The missile systems are the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by China in the South China Sea,” a defense official said.

The former Marine Corps general said there will be times when tensions rise between the U.S. and China and Beijing and Washington will sometimes “step on each other’s toes.”

“So we’re going to have to find a way to productively manage our relationship,” he said. “And the military relationship is to be a stabilizing force in the relations between the two countries.”

Analysis: China’s continued militarization of its manmade islands is becoming increasingly problematic for the U.S. and its Asian allies as more sophisticated and longer-range systems are deployed. Clearly, the Chinese are attempting to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capability that, should the need arise, the People’s Liberation Army would employ to great effect in an emergency.

It’s not that the U.S. can’t reach out and destroy the island weapon systems, it’s that the Chinese were brazen enough to even put them there in the first place that has Mattis concerned.

China did not choose the location of its islands randomly; they sit astride one of the business and most lucrative trade routes in the world, and one that is vitally important to global commerce. If China is brazen enough to build and then weaponize islands astride a route that is vital to global commerce, what more is Beijing prepared to do to tip the balance of power (regionally at least) in its favor?

The Belt and Road Initiative is, of course, providing Beijing with additional port facilities and other potential military bases around the world, and that includes Europe. Frankly, all of China’s ‘aggressive’ outreach is making its neighbors nervous. A Pew survey released this week found that, of 25 countries surveyed, “Majorities or pluralities in nearly every country surveyed say the future would be better if the U.S. were the world’s leading power than if China were.” So that means what China’s doing around the world and in its own neighborhood is making people nervous.

This will play to the United States’ advantage. Countries will be more willing to work with the U.S. to not necessarily ‘contain’ China but certainly to push back against its rising aggressiveness. Given the attention the Trump administration is paying to Asia, Washington is obviously moving to exploit its advantage.

China is a revisionist power with revisionist intentions. But it’s own actions are making it less likely that Beijing will be welcomed and more likely it will be shunned in the future as the Asian economic giant seeks to continue expanding its influence.



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