China has been working to gain territories further out into the South China Sea to extend their control over one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This expansion consisted of building military bases on artificial islands 750 miles from the Chinese coast. Some of these bases are even well within Manila's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
China's construction and claim of ownership of islands in the East and South China Seas has placed numerous countries on alert. Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam all have a checkered history with China and are at the forefront of the disputed islands and a state of alert about what is seen as Chinese maritime expansion. Within Southeast Asia China has keenly tried to improve its relationships through developing trade agreements with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China was striving for a stable environment to allow continued economic growth but has also been determined to expand its territorial reach.
Founded in 2004 the China-South Asia Business Forum emphases communication, cooperation, development, and mutual benefits. China was working to strengthened and engage with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). These actions led to the creation of the China-South Asia Business Council in 2006 which was a link between Chinese companies, SAARC, Chambers of Commerce, and Industry.
China has attended the successive SAARC summits, they continue to host senior diplomats in China, and has accommodated the South Asian countries' commodity fair and China-SAARC senior officials' meeting. China launched a possible competitor to the World Bank called the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which is based in Beijing.
These actions would suggest that China wanted to be an active participating member in this region. The AIIB has called to end U.S. dollar dominance by promoting a single currency like the European Union did only using the yuan as the replacement. Using the yuan helps Chinese trade partners, particularly ASEAN and ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) members but also increases China's role in the South China Sea. Many of these countries fear the possibility of "economic colonization" by China.
Spratly islands is the location where China has elected to conduct island-grabbing to extend its area of influence. With China's past actions of what seemed as goodwill and mutual regional development now is viewed as positioning for their expansion and eventual control over the South China Sea and is lucrative shipping lanes. China only recently became interested in the Spratly islands and with each island occupation Beijing's negotiating position has become stronger.
China's island expansion in the South China Sea have triggered many of its neighbors to increase their armed defenses. One country, the Philippines, took a different route and brought the case to the International Court of Justice. Tensions in the region are high enough that the pursuit of diplomatic channels would benefit all. They want to settle their quarrels with China at the permanent court of arbitration, the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands. China's claim is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which states habitable islands can qualify to have 200 nautical mile exclusive zones. Rocks and shoals can be eligible for territorial zones if within 12 nautical miles and are above water. China has turned tiny coral reefs into artificial islands to qualify for territorial zones and even constructed an airfield. In response the Philippines has announced that it would base fighter planes at Subic Bay for the first time in decades. Subic Bay is the nearest island to Scarborough Shoal which the Chinese seized from the Philippines in 2012.
China has challenged Japan's control of the Sekaku Islands in the East China Sea in even though China is Japan's largest trading partner. These actions by China has triggered an overhaul of Japan's national security strategy that seeks to transform Japan's post World War II pacifist tradition. Japan's current constitution under article 9 requires Japan to renounce war or threat of war as a means of settling disputes. These changes by the Japanese government were provoked by Chinese actions in the East China Sea. In 2015 Japan released photos of Chinese offshore platforms to show China's illegal unilateral development of natural gas fields in Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea. Japan believes China is constructing artificial islands to deploy radar systems and operating bases for helicopters or drones to conduct air patrols.
China fear US involvement that could disrupt their oil shipments if there is a conflict with one of the US allies in the Pacific. Known as the "Malacca dilemma," the Chinese government worries not only about the US Navy but also terrorist's actions because of the relatively long and narrow passageway exposes their tankers. Because of China's concerns over stability in the region and their existing suppliers have dedicated substantial efforts in securing overland energy supplies from numerous states in Central Asia.
Vietnamese ships operating in the South China Sea had their cables cut by Chinese vessels there has been at least ten confrontations in the last year. Vietnam has strengthened collaboration with India and launched a joint energy exploration project in the South China Sea. This exploration project is bitterly condemned by the Chinese media. A Chinese warship threatened an Indian vessel as it left a Vietnamese port, this was the first clash amongst China and India in the South China Sea. Even with warnings from China; India, Vietnam, and ExxonMobil are scheduling exploration projects west of the Spratly Islands and off the coast of Vietnam.
The United States venturing for international negotiations over the disputed South China Sea claims may not be sufficient to keep China from achieving their short and long term control. The United States will have to make a clear written multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea dispute and strengthen its presence in and around the South China Sea. This would allow the United States to remain a key player in protecting ASEAN nations, international shippers, and oil companies' rights to navigate and explore the South China Sea and remove China from "granting" rights.
China's expansion, challenges in the international courts, aggravated regional tensions, changes to nations constitutions, and strained US relations have increased chances of conflict. A conflict that would involve half of the world's annual merchant fleet tonnage and could destroy vast economies around the world. Because of the nations involved any conflict could develop into a world conflict. Sometimes you need to read, understand, and take heed of the writing on the wall.