Over the past several years, the Chinese government has been not-so-quietly building what they term “defensive outposts” by claiming uninhabited reefs across the South China Sea. This area includes a vast network of tiny underwater reefs and small islands called the Spratlys and the Paracels. These areas have long been in dispute among China, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as China’s nemesis, Taiwan.

Starting in 2013, China has spent enormous resources building harbors and airstrips and now has installed weapons which they have stated are “primarily for defense and self-protection.” The US has condemned China with president-elect Trump calling the emplacements “a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing,” during an interview with Fox News, according to a recent New York Times article.

With tensions increasing between China and American allies in the region, these hotly contested areas are significant to US interests, such as the safety of Taiwan and free access to vital shipping lanes. With China now installing “defensive weapons” on several of these man-made outposts, the real concern lies in their ability to install advanced weaponry such as long-range anti-aircraft missile systems.

A flash point with serious global implications seems to be brewing just as a new American regime with a history of anti-Chinese rhetoric takes control. Though I may not agree on much of Mr. Trump’s stated policies for his administration, it appears that Obama’s tough talk of consequences has done little to dissuade Beijing from their repeated violations of UN maritime law. Trump’s habit of shouting, along with carrying a big stick, might be what is required to force China to come to heel.

That said, this issue which has gotten little attention over the past three years may spin out of control if handled with too much “mine is bigger than yours” diplomacy that Trump is fast becoming famous for.

There seems no real answer to this developing concern. The feckless UN is toothless as China has exposed, by ignoring the ruling of the international tribunal over the summer. The other powers, and I use that term very lightly, in the region, are impotent against the giant that is China without the backing of the US. Whether the US has the stomach to intervene if the current diplomatic pushing comes to military shoving, remains to be seen, though America continues to send naval patrols in and around the disputed areas.

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This issue could be the first real test for President-elect Trump’s diplomatic abilities. Push too little and his administration will appear weak, potentially derailing his “deal-making” abilities in the region he boasts about so much. However, a push too hard could send us and our south Asian allies towards war, something no one really wants. As the world turns, this developing issue on the other side of the globe may have more impact on the world stage than we’d like to imagine. One can hope president-elect Trump puts in the time and thought required to ensure a peaceable outcome we all can live with.

 

Sources:  NY Times, The Guardian, NationalInterest.org, BBC

Featured image courtesy of STRATFOR.