China's Great Wall of Sand

A Chinese vessel at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Source: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs via AP

China is building new harbors and airstrips on various reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands -- facilities that, Beijing confirms, will be used for military as well as civil purposes. The U.S. and its allies in the region need to weigh their response with care.

New images showing the extent of these land-reclamation efforts in the South China Sea have aroused concern, and critics are accusing the Barack Obama administration of fecklessness in the face of provocation. The issue isn't quite so clear-cut. Sharper thinking is needed about when and how to challenge China’s growing assertiveness. 

QuickTake Territorial Disputes 

While claiming that the construction was intended for “typhoon shelters, navigation aids, search-and-rescue centers, marine meteorological forecasting stations” and the like, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson admitted the new installations would also be used for military purposes. They'll enable Chinese naval vessels to refuel, and jet fighters to patrol, far from the mainland. They could help China impose a threatened air-defense identification zone over the South China Sea. In January, even foreign ministers from the normally reticent Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed “concern” at the scale of recent construction. 

Yet this “great wall of sand,” in the words of U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris, is not as brazen a move as one might think. Other claimants to the Spratlys have built military facilities, including airstrips, on islands and atolls they control. The reclaimed land doesn't necessarily strengthen China’s legal claim to the territory or surrounding waters. And the facilities probably wouldn't be much use if it came to a shooting war, given their vulnerability to bombs and missile strikes. 

The U.S. cannot expect to frustrate every manifestation of China’s rise and expanding ambitions. It needs to pick its fights judiciously. Beijing is wrong to try to change the status quo in a tense region, and the administration should say so -- but if the U.S. hopes to do more than that, it must develop usable measures capable of imposing real costs

Unifying the various other claimants in the region is crucial. China notices when Southeast Asian nations speak with one voice. Arguably, President Xi Jinping launched his most recent charm offensive in response to the backlash over last summer’s deployment of a huge Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. The idea of joint ASEAN patrols, perhaps including Japan, is still far off. But if, in the meantime, smaller nations can resolve or at least suspend their own territorial disputes, they’ll be able to apply more diplomatic pressure.   

Beijing has been dragging out negotiations with ASEAN over a binding code of conduct. If this continues, members should work with the U.S. to develop their own. That would draw a bright line between regionally accepted norms and Chinese actions. Similarly, the U.S. should continue to press governments to follow the example set by the Philippines and submit their claims to international arbitration. The aim should be to entrench a rules-based order that China will find harder with time to ignore. 

The U.S. should also do more to bolster the defenses of nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines by improving their maritime “domain awareness” and command-and-control systems. While engaging with Beijing on codes to avoid accidental clashes in the air and on the sea, the U.S. must also be clearer about actions by China that would cross a line. These should include any attempt to seize territory occupied by another claimant, unilaterally declaring an air-defense identification zone, and provoking incidents by aggressively deploying its massive fleet of “white-hulled” paramilitary vessels and fishing boats. The U.S. should at least consider deploying “gray-hulled” naval vessels in response to Chinese coercion, even at the risk of escalation. 

The hope, it goes without saying, is to lessen tensions, not worsen them. But Beijing must understand that, if it goes too far, escalation is the risk it runs.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.