Why China warned the US to stay away

cargo is unloaded onto the shore of Mischief Reef, located 216 km (135 miles) west of the Philippine island of Palawan Image copyright CSIS/Reuters

A group of islands in the South China Sea may not sound particularly significant, but these recently-formed pieces of land could be the key to Beijing's future military strategy.

I suspect that until a few weeks ago the South China Sea was not a place most people around the world gave much thought to, or any thought at all. The Spratly Islands even less so. Unless you are a China geek you've probably hardly heard of them. But google Spratly islands today and you will find a sudden deluge of articles, all proclaiming the same sort of sentiment: "China and the US are on a collision course and it could end in war!"

Could it? Probably not, not anytime soon anyway. But what's going on in the South China Sea is still very significant.

This of course is all about China, or rather China's intentions.

For the best part of two millennia China was the dominant power in Asia. But then along came European expansion and the industrial revolution and the arrival on China's shores of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and of course eventually the British. China was brought to its knees, carved up, its palaces burned, its people hooked on opium supplied by Britain. Then came a revolution, a civil war, a world war, another revolution and 30 years of Maoist madness.

Now, finally, is China emerging from those two centuries of chaos. It is once again wealthy, united and strong. None of us really knows what that will mean. One reason is that China's secretive Communist Party leadership never tells anybody its intentions.

And so we are left to read the "China tea leaves", look at what China is doing and try to work out its intentions.

And so that brings me to the South China Sea. The southern part of it, close to the Philippines, is dotted with treacherous coral reefs, rocks and sandbars. Only a handful are big enough to be called islands. China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been quarrelling over who owns them for decades. But last year there was a sudden and dramatic change.

Aerial photos taken by the Philippine navy showed a fleet of dredgers anchored off one of the Chinese-controlled reefs. They were seen pumping millions of tonnes of material on to the reefs to form an artificial island.

A media frenzy ensued in which I played my own small part. I think I have a fair claim to being the first Western journalist to see the strange new Chinese islands with my own eyes.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ships at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands

Last July I set out on a Filipino fishing boat to try to find them. One morning, ploughing through a heavy swell 300 nautical miles off the Philippine coast, we suddenly saw land ahead where my chart said there shouldn't have been any. Even the latest Philippine navy flights had not detected any work on this particular reef. But there it was - a brand new, yellowish piece of land at a place called Gaven Reef.

This year China's work on the islands has accelerated dramatically. More than 2,000 acres of new land has been created on six reefs. In April fresh photos showed the outlines of a runway beginning to be laid on one.

So what is China up to? Some pro-Beijing scholars have tried to claim the islands are for both military and civilian use. There will be lighthouses and shelters for fishermen they say.

Well maybe, but Beijing is not spending billions of dollars on huge land reclamation hundreds of miles from its own coast to help fishermen. These islands are military and strategic. China is alone in claiming the whole of the South China Sea. Now it is creating "facts on the ground". That runway is not for tourist flights.

A few weeks ago a US surveillance plane deliberately flew close to the new islands. The crew recorded the immediate and angry Chinese response.

"Foreign military aircraft, this is Chinese navy," the operator announced, "You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately!" The warning was repeated with growing irritation until the radio operator was left spluttering, "You go!"

There is nothing in international law that says China can build islands on submerged reefs far from its own shore and then declare them military no-go zones. But that is not stopping Beijing from doing so.

And so that question arises again. What is China's intention? Does it really intend to use these islands to try to enforce its claim to the whole of the South China Sea? Will it really try to exclude other militaries, including the US from entering these waters and airspace? If so there is going to be trouble.

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Image copyright CSIS/Reuters

In September 2014, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reported on the group of marooned Filipinos trying to stand in the way of the building of new islands in the disputed South China Sea.

China's Island Factory

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