South China Sea: What’s China’s plan for its ‘Great Wall of Sand’?

Despite all the other issues demanding China’s attention this year – the virus, its trade war with the US, Hong Kong’s national security law, and a host of economic woes – the South China Sea has been revived in recent months as an arena for serious tensions.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo now – for the first time – calling China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea unlawful, Alexander Neill examines China’s plans to extend its reach in the region. The South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes, has been a flashpoint for years, with several countries claiming ownership of its small islands and reefs and with it, access to resources. In recent years, China has been increasingly assertive over what it claims are its centuries-old claims to the contested region, and has been rapidly building up its military presence to back up those claims.

Former Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris once referred to this as the “Great Wall of Sand” – a “nine-dash line” creating a protective ring and supply network around Chinese territory at sea, as the wall did on land. But while China and the US have traded increasingly barbed comments over the South China Sea, broadly speaking, they had managed such differences.

Despite their trade conflict, and the US had avoided taking sides on China’s territorial disputes with other countries – other than to demand freedom of movement for its vessels. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Criticism of China’s early handling of the outbreak, led by the US, has enraged China. Many Western leaders appear to be persuaded by Mr Pompeo’s argument that China was exploiting the pandemic to double-down on its coercive behaviours in general. And those rising tensions have been playing out in the South China Sea.

Military tensions at a worrying time
In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel close to the Paracel Islands, which China and Vietnam claim as theirs.

Then, a Malaysian oil exploration also found its operations disrupted off the coast of Borneo by a Chinese marine survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, backed by China’s Navy and Coast Guard. Consequently, the USS America, a US Navy amphibious assault ship, joined by an Australian frigate, was deployed to waters nearby.

The escalation continued with the deployment of two US Navy guided missile destroyers, USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry to the Paracel and Spratly Islands (known as the Xisha and Nansha in Chinese) respectively. The warships conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) aimed at challenging what the US views as a pattern of China’s unlawful claims in international waters.