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China’s great wall of sand: will it antagonise territorial tensions?

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  Saturday 4th April 2015
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Saturday 4th April 2015
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The South China sea and its outstanding natural beauty has been an area of territorial contention for centuries. In recent years, the access to crude oil and natural gas has been a driving force for the land-grabbing by Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The long disputed South China sea is now firmly in the unofficial grips of Chinese control as they set about building an artificial landmass in the area. Photo: Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet

China has radicalised its soft expansionist policy with its sudden reclamation of land by building a “great wall of sand” in the South China sea. US Pacific fleet commander admiral Harry Harris described the scene, commenting that the communist nation had created “over 4sq/km (1.5sq miles) of artificial landmass,” a move which will surely aggravate tensions.

While it may be the case that the aforementioned nations might be disconcerted by the dramatic plan, the reason for China’s investment in this plan is becoming clear: the “artificial landmasses” have been speculated to function as landing strips for China’s growing military.

Perhaps this is frightening for the West, but the Far East has always been clouded by the sense of marginalisation in the international community. If China’s unprecedented economic growth provides the country with the tools needed to get the neighbouring countries on board with its cross-border agenda, then perhaps their status in the world will be elevated. This is not to say that China wants to make Vietnam, Burma or the Philippines parts of a greater Chinese nation, but the persistent economic growth coupled with their military expansion must incentivise them to become more accepting of Chinese politics.

That being said, the Philippines has claimed it has filed a case against China with the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. So far, this policy has all but shaken up diplomatic tensions. A similar thing can be said of Vietnam; last year, anti-Chinese protests and violence broke out in Vietnam due to what the populace saw as the illegal establishment of an oil rig in disputed territory.

China has the geopolitical advantage over all countries in the region. It has a monopoly of power due to its size, trading partners, and far superior economy. But not excluded from this is its growing military presence. It has the legitimacy of its position on the UN security council to be an active military force, and this dominant role in the Far East may limit the potential forces and economies of the neighbouring states.

In any case, China is being more overt in its overseas bullying. The sustained economic growth of the past 30 years has put it on track to overtake the US this year, and thus it has the international prowess of an economically tough nation blended with a totalitarian dictatorship.

It seems clearer that with each action the nation takes, it is fulfilling its natural succession from the Soviet Union, and this great wall of sand is certainly no different. 

Callum Brown