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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Pentagon’s newly established China Task Force is now formally underway, a move which introduces the prospect of strategic and operational military adjustmentsin the Pacific intended to ensure stability and counter Chinese provocations.

One area of likely focus is the ongoing volatility in the South China Sea, a circumstance which continues to lurk beneath the surface of broader geopolitical and strategic dynamics between the U.S. and Chinaand inspire continued military exercises, drills and operational maneuvers by both countries in the area.

The area in question is called the Spratly Islands, more than 750 reefs, small islands and atolls in the South China Sea off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Highly disputed for centuries, the area is rich in oil and natural gas. Countries claiming rights to territory in the Spratly Islands include China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei.

Citing precedent as far back as its Dynastic era, China claims virtually all of the disputed areas as its own, citing something called a “nine-dash-line” demarcation surrounding the island chain. While not considered legitimate by most of the world, China’s claim represents a transparent effort to fortify its territorial ambitions in the area. Given this, for many years now, China has been engaging in what the Pentagon calls “land reclamation,” a term which could be described as phony island building. Essentially, China has for many years been constructing artificial land, or man-made structures, to extend upon and enlarge certain disputed areasof the South China Sea island chains. These Chinese activities, which have included the placement of weapons, artillery, aircraft runwaysand even fighter jets on man made structures, have for years generated sharp criticism by the Pentagon.

The South China Sea includes strategically vital waterways, important to international trade. Senior Pentagon officials have long criticized China's artificial island-building and said the U.S. would not be deterred by China's moves, a sensibility which has provided the inspiration for many Freedom of Navigation Operations in recent years. FONOPS, as they are called, are used to send a deliberate message to challenge China’s territorial claims in the region. FONOPS have, for instance, been where theU.S. Navy sails one of its destroyers within the 12 mile territorial boundary of some of the phony island structures to demonstrate its right to operate wherever international law allows. The operations are designed to make the statement that China’s territorial claims are not legitimate.

While the conflicts about the region have been underway for decades, there has in recent years been a massive uptick in both Chinese and U.S. operations in the region, to include training exercises, war preparation drills and maritime patrols. Both China and the U.S. have, for instance, conducted dual-carrier operations in the area to demonstrate the ability to launch and sustain massive amounts of coordinated air attacks from the ocean. China has sent its now operational second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, to the region and conducted numerous amphibious warfare exercises in the area around the South China Sea and Taiwan.

The Pentagon’s long standing opposition to Chinese phony island building, or “land reclamation,” in the South China Sea is based upon the definition of “island” as it is explained in the U.N. Convention Law of the Sea, an international agreement negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s.

China has for many years now been building new island-like structures, adding air strips and placing weapons in and around highly disputed areas of the South China Sea.

As of many years ago China had already reclaimed over thousands of acres of area throughout the region, a phony island-building process caught on video by U.S. Navy Poseidon spy planes years ago.

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Preferring to call them "artificial features" rather than "islands" or "territories," Pentagon officials say China's attempted island and outpost building does not bolster any legitimate territorial claims in the region -- according to established international conventions.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide." Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."

According to the U.N. treaty, there are no provisions granting rights to waters without regard to land-based sovereign rights. The U.N. treaty specifies that territorial waters extend for 12 miles off of the coast of sovereign territory. This means that, while other countries have a right to peacefulinnocent passage within the 12 miles, the waters are regarded as an extension of the territory of the country, a Pentagon official explained.

However, according to the U.N. treaty, 12 miles water off the shore of an artificial structure - something which does not meet the definition of an island-- would not be regarded as an extension of a country's territory, Pentagon officials told The National Interest in a background discussion on the topic.

Many countries in the region have claimed or developed outposts in the South China Sea, but nothing comparableto the scope and degree of China's activities.

Senior Pentagon officials say that in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has 48 outposts; the Philippines, eight; Malaysia, five; and Taiwan, one.

The U.N. treaty also specifies that up to 200 miles off the coast of a country is considered part of an economic exclusive zone, or EEZ. This means the host country has exclusive first rights to resources and any economic related activities.

This means countries cannot, for instance, fish in the waters of an EEZ or set up an oil-drilling effortwithout securing the permission of the host country. However, activities within an EEZ that do not relate to economic issues are allowed as part of the freedoms associated with the high seas, Pentagon officials told The National interest.

It is likely a pretty safe assumption that uncertainties related to the South China Sea are likely to be addressed by the now underway Pentagon China Task Force, as its focus is reported to be grounded upon maintaining stability and freedom of navigation in the region. A Pentagon report citing the start of the task force says the new China Task Force plans to finish its work in about four months and maintain a focus of ensuring stability in the volatile region.

“At the end, DOD officials want to provide Austin (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) with specific and actionable recommendations and milestones to meet the China challenge. Over the years, there have been many initiatives that addressed growing Chinese provocations in many areas. The secretary wants an assessment of the best ways to defend the international, rules-based order that has kept great power peace since the end of World War II,” thePentagon report said.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.