Opinion

James Brown
China building islands, not bridges

Midway through the weekend and I was asking if it was all worth it: the hundreds of delegates; the heavy security checkpoints clustered around every approach to Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel; the multitude of defence ministers and their entourages with close-cropped hair, earpieces, battered BlackBerries and sheaves of just-updated speech notes; each speech covering the same points about regional stability and prosperity, each speaker issuing forth carefully polished lines, committing them to no more than had been precisely planned.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted annually in Singapore by the British International Institute for Strategic Studies, is band camp for Asia’s grand strategists. It is a chance for officials and non-official delegates to discuss security issues in a region awash with militaries that are furiously modernising. Strategy band camp has its rock stars – always the Chinese and American speakers, this year the deputy chief of the Chinese general staff, Admiral Sun Jianguo, and United States defence secretary Ashton Carter. But there are also think tank luminaries such as Washington’s Bonnie Glaser, trailed by a media pack at the end of each plenary session eager to have every word dissected and each hidden meaning explained. And it was Glaser who eventually answered my question as to whether the weekend was worth it or whether it was just a gossip shop. Strategic gossip, to be sure, but gossip all the same.

“Shangri-La, by virtue of being in the calendar every year, forces people to prepare,” she said. “Look at how China released its white paper on military strategy this week and the Pentagon signalled its approach through speeches in Honolulu on the way here.”

Her last point referred to a speech made by secretary Carter in Hawaii days before the conference, in which he outlined that the US would remain dominant in Asia for decades to come, sailing ships and flying aircraft where it pleased within the constraints of international law. This annual dialogue does prompt strategic competitors such as China and the US to take it seriously, to prepare their positions and be prepared to answer questions from the region about their policies. And the questions this time were all about territorial claims in the South China Sea.

For the past 18 months, China has been carefully building artificial islands on top of submerged reefs in contested territories of the South China Sea. In total, more than 810 hectares – an area larger than Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin – has been built by dredges and barges shifting sand among the shallow seas. Some of the new islands have runways able to accommodate fighter aircraft or bombers. All have fortress-like structures to accommodate People’s Liberation Army personnel, and a handful have heavy weapons already in place. It’s an extraordinary engineering endeavour, potentially costing billions and requiring hundreds of personnel to be housed and fed in the middle of an ocean, 1000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. Chinese officials assert that it is designed to improve territories China already controls so as to better render international public services such as search and rescue, fisheries management, and weather monitoring. But such explanations have largely fallen flat among countries within the region, including the US and Australia. Chinese land reclamation is really about creating new facts on the ground, frustrating international legal efforts to resolve who owns what in the South China Sea, and extending potential PLA military control southwards.

Washington has now formed an official view that China’s activities in the South China Sea are driven by nationalism, part of a wider strategy aimed at undercutting US influence in Asia. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, US senator John McCain concluded, “China will likely continue with its destabilising activities unless and until it perceives that the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits.” US allies and friends in the region, such as Japan, have begun to question whether the Chinese strategic calculus can be changed at all – and how committed America is to investing more than rhetoric in changing it.

The real work at Shangri-La happens in the closed-door official meetings, held on the floor above the main conference. The “bilats” and “trilats” are the ministerial equivalent of speed dating, a chance for leaders to converse and to endorse joint statements their respective staff have been working on for weeks. Australia’s defence minister, Kevin Andrews, was in demand. His most important meeting was the trilateral conducted with Carter and his staff as well as Japan’s minister for defence, Gen Nakatani. All three called on South China Sea claimant states, including China, “to exercise self-restraint, halt reclamation activities, take steps to ease tensions and refrain from provocative actions that could escalate tensions”.

It’s worth thinking through what it would look like were the Chinese to comply with the request to halt land reclamation activities. The dredges would stop working, the barges would pull away, military and engineering personnel presumably would be withdrawn. The artificial islands would be left to erode in the coming years. It’s hard to envisage this happening. If nothing else, it would be a devastating defeat for whoever in Beijing authorised the strategy and the immense fortune necessary to fund it.

For that reason, although I hope China will reconsider its current strategy, I don’t expect that it will. That’s a problem, because both Canberra and Washington have few immediate apparent options to respond. One being loudly mooted is what is known as a freedom of navigation operation. Essentially, demonstrating contempt for any territorial claims the Chinese might be making from these artificial islands by sailing military vessels within 12 nautical miles of them. Such operations, so the thinking goes, allow the US to demonstrate resolve, and might at least prompt China to be clear about what territory it is actually seeking to claim. (Chinese officials have been deliberately ambiguous for some time about the precise extent of claims they are making in the South China Sea.) The Australian’s Greg Sheridan believes Australia is likely to conduct one of these operations soon, flying a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 maritime patrol aircraft close to one of the Chinese artificial islands.

But China could just as easily ignore these forays and continue piling sand on top of the reefs and laying concrete for military runways. Their bluff called, those countries opposed to this would need to weigh whether to physically intervene in land reclamation – and by physically, read militarily – or somehow find another way to create an incentive for China to stop. Ideas on how to do the latter are in short supply. Countries such as Japan and the Philippines are nervous that the US does not have an adequate suite of responses for the sort of low-level provocation being employed by China as it jostles for territory in the South China Sea. They are concerned that US President Barack Obama, legacy-focused in the final 18 months of his term, will not risk a dangerous confrontation over creeping Chinese territorialism.

At this year’s dialogue, both the Chinese and US speakers pulled back on the assertiveness in their speeches, stressing the need for continued co-operation in Asia to ensure stability and underwrite the growing prosperity in the world’s economic engine room. But the relative calm was deceptive, and both speeches had subtle barbs. China’s Sun Jianguo reminded that his country could go further in asserting its maritime claims. Secretary Carter gently signalled China’s dependence on freedom of navigation in the Malacca Straits for its growing energy needs and reminded that the US is still dominant there by flying over the straits in a naval aircraft.

But amid such tersely choreographed interactions between the two major powers, there were some moments of genuine spontaneity. The highlight of the weekend for me was a moment in which an American military officer, trying to sidestep a pack of photographers and television crews, was accidentally bundled into a hotel elevator with Sun and his entire Chinese military delegation. For that briefest of moments as the elevator travelled up from the lobby, competitors on either side of the Pacific were united against a common enemy: the media.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Building islands, not bridges". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.