Beijing and the US have seen their relations break down in recent years – and aside from trade war feuds – the South China Sea has been a huge wedge between the two superpowers. The region is host to lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation of what China deems to be its territory. The demarcation enforces a claim over all of the island clusters in the region and 90 percent of the South China Sea as a whole, but is deemed illegal by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
This has angered smaller nations in the region such as Vietnam and the Philippines, both of whom are reeling at China’s militarisation of the Spratly Islands – a key archipelago in the region that both countries claim sovereignty over.
The Spratly Islands form the epicentre of the complex disputes, as China occupies seven features, and has heavily militarised its portion of the archipelago.
The US has come to the aid of these countries, giving Vietnam patrol ships and even forming a crucial military partnership with the Philippines.
In 2016, the US reached an agreement with the Philippines to build five military installations located throughout the country.
The base which infuriated Beijing more than any other was the Antonio Bautista Air Base on western Palawan island, which faces the hotly disputed Spratly islands directly.
This has done nothing to prevent China’s intense militarisation of the island cluster however.
Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has engulfed the South China Sea with man made island bases, and has been accused of forming them specifically for military purposes.
The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate China’s development of military bases has 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 multi-storey buildings that China has built on reefs..
This points to what Robert Farley of National Interest describes as a “dangerous game” being played by China in the South China Sea.
He states there are a number of ways the region could suddenly become plagued by conflict as Washington and Beijing grow increasingly audacious in their respective movements.
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Xi Jinping’s efforts to stamp military authority over the Spratly chain combined with the US’ persistence in undertaking ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the surrounding area brings the two countries close to a flashpoint.
One false move could lead to a premature pulling of the trigger which would see conflict spiral out of control.
There is also the issue of fighter jets in the sky – China and the US have already had one aircraft collision in 2001 – another could have disastrous consequences.
As Washington and Beijing both refuse to back down, the risk of a military clash continues to stoke concern in the South China Sea.
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