China’s decision to establish a military base on a contested island in the South China Sea is prompting fears of an escalation in one of the world’s most disputed bodies of water.
Beijing announced earlier this week that it will place troops in the newly formed city of Sansha in the Paracel Islands. Beijing declared the establishment of Sansha last month to administer the nearby waters, portions of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.
The United States on Tuesday became the latest government to voice concern over the plan, which has already been rejected by the governments in Hanoi and Manila.
“We remain concerned should there be any unilateral moves of this kind that would seem to prejudge an issue that we have said repeatedly can only be solved by negotiations, by dialogue, and by a collaborative diplomatic process among all the claimants,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
U.S. Senator John McCain called the move “unnecessarily provocative,” saying such action reinforces why many Asian countries are increasingly concerned about China’s territorial claims.
China has been accused by its neighbors of becoming increasingly bold about its claims in the South China Sea, which is thought to hold large oil and natural gas deposits.
Don Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University, says that China’s behavior can partly be traced to a new nationalistic assertiveness that has resulted from its emerging economic power.
“One of the objectives that China would appear to be following is to increasingly reduce the influence of the American naval presence in the South China Sea,” says Emmerson. “One would even suggest that those within the People’s Liberation Army who are among the most vehement nationalists on this issue would like to see the South China Sea actually become a Chinese lake.”
China claims nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer region, which is also claimed in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A study published this week by the International Crisis Group said the likelihood of a major conflict remains low, but warned that the dispute has reached an “impasse” and said “all of the trends are in the wrong direction.”
The report was released after ASEAN, a 10-member Southeast Asian regional grouping of nations, did not agree on a code of conduct to uniformly resolve the maritime disputes at a regional summit in Cambodia last month.
The report says China has “worked actively” to exploit divisions among Southeast Asian nations, giving preferential treatment to those who support its position in the dispute.
China has insisted on dealing with the disputes on a country-by-country basis, rather than by confronting the regional bloc as a whole.