China has engulfed the South China Sea with man made island bases, and has been accused of forming them specifically for military purposes. The key issue for other Asian neighbours is the placement of these bases in archipelagos that are under sovereignty claims by multiple countries. The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei – and have become the cornerstone of China’s quest for dominance in the region.
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate the developments on military bases have been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.
While the sophisticated technology appears to pose a huge challenge to other claimants of the Spratly chain.
Defence analyst Robert Farley outlined in his article for National Interest last year that these bases, while heavily resourced, could have crucial strategic flaws.
Firstly, Mr Farley argues that while some of the Chinese-controlled islands are armed with missile systems, they may not be in the best environment to be fully effective.
He highlights that land-based missiles survive air attack because they can hide among natural cover such as hills and forests, but this is lacking in the Spratly Islands.
Furthermore, the airfields built by China would also struggle in the event of a conflict, as the Spratly Chain’s remote location would make the gathering of repair resources difficult.
Perhaps even more crucial, China’s Island bases would struggle in naval combat given that they are unable to move during combat, while enemy ships would benefit from mobility.
Rivals such as the US would be able to map China’s territory prior to an attack, meaning targets would be identified well in advance of combat should it occur.
The biggest issue for Beijing whether embroiled in a conflict or not, are the concerns that the concrete at the foot of these new island installations is beginning to cave due to the climate in the region leaving their foundations soft and unstable.
Should extreme weather conditions, such as huge typhoons, gather momentum, China’s bases could be damaged further or even destroyed.
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This, combined with increased resistance to China’s water claims by smaller nations, could lead to a substantial hit to Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
Given China’s unwavering aggression in recent years, smaller nations are mounting more of a challenge to Beijing in an attempt to thwart its audacious strategy.
The Philippines have already secured backing by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which deemed China’s Nine-Dash Line claim as illegal under international law.
Now, with Vietnam also vulnerable to encroachment into its economic exclusion zone, Hanoi is considering a similar route.
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