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China’s Real Intent in the Spratly Islands

China’s Real Intent in the Spratly Islands

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Stephen SchwalbeBy Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration, American Military University

Since 2015, China has rehabilitated a few of the Spratly Island islets into miniature military airfields. Each of these strategically located islets now has a permanent 10,000-foot runway, anti-aircraft guns and living facilities. Why is there such Chinese interest in the Spratly Islands?

Spratly Islands Contain Several Natural Resources Useful to China

The Spratly Islands are located close to the middle of the South China Sea. They have many quality fishing areas and potential, though unverified, significant oil and natural gas deposits.

While China may be interested in exploiting potential natural resources in the Spratly Islands, that may not be worth jeopardizing trade relations and the influence China has established with other countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Does China Want to Control Strategic Sea Lanes in the South China Sea?

Controlling the strategic sea lanes through the South China Sea is not realistic, as that would entail challenging the historic “freedom of navigation” custom upheld worldwide by the U.S. Navy. China is not looking to start an international conflict with any country, especially the United States, as that would be economically counterproductive.

China Probably Wants to Preserve Its Future Security

So what prompted China to build up three “permanent aircraft carriers” on the Spratly Island islets of Fiery Cross, Johnson South Reef and Mischief Reef? It turns out that there may be a more fundamental reason for this unprecedented Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands.

As I noted in a previous article, the Philippines challenged China’s buildup of these islets in the South China Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. And the Philippines won the case, as China probably thought it might.

In anticipation of such an event eventually occurring, China likely began building these outposts due to a future possibility of conflict involving control of the South China Sea. These military installations in the Spratly Islands serve as a deterrent against any military action to enforce Permanent Court rulings or any other activities in the region. These islets can be perceived as China’s investment in the future security of the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea in general.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006.

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