THE NATIONAL INTEREST — “We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated and we will not be isolated,” Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, exclaimed during the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. It was a direct riposte to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s earlier speech at the same event, where he warned China against “self-isolation” due to its aggressive maneuvers in adjacent waters. Not short of bravado, the Chinese admiral went so far as stating Beijing does not “make or fear trouble” against the “provocations of certain countries for their own selfish interests.” The speech coincided with reports of China’s back-to-back (unsafe) interception of American surveillance missions in the South China Sea.
Four centuries after the publication of British jurist John Selden’s “The Closed Sea,” which argued for exclusive sovereign control of international waters, China is inching closer to transforming the South China Sea—the world’s most important waterway, which handles up to a third of global maritime commerce, four times as much energy transport as the Suez canal, and more than a tenth of global fisheries stock—into a virtual domestic lake. China’s control of the Paracel chain of islands is a fait accompli, while the Pratas chain of islands are under the administration of what Beijing considers as a renegade province, Taiwan, which will be eventually reincorporated into a Greater China. In the last two years or so, China has reclaimed 3200 acres (1,295 hectares) of land to build gigantic artificial islands in Spratly chain of islands, giving birth to a sprawling network of civilian and military installations across the disputed waters. Soon, China may be in a position to establish an “exclusion zone” in the area, imperiling freedom of overflight and navigation for regional and external military forces in the area.
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