December 07, 2017 08:13
Beijing's new move to assert air control over the disputed South China Sea risks alarming countries that had agreed last month to work out differences diplomatically.
State-run China Central Television and one English-language news outlet said last week the military had deployed domestically built J-11B jet fighters to Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.
Hangars in the island chain would improve China's overall control of the sea, the television network said, quoting a Chinese military expert. The country eventually could intercept foreign aircraft, it said.
Five other governments, all militarily weaker than China, contest Beijing's claims to about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-sq.km sea that's prized for fisheries, marine shipping lanes and undersea fossil fuel reserves.
China's aircraft deployment will raise alerts among the other claimants as well as the United States, which has more fire power than China and insists the sea remain open to all, analysts believe.
But China and Southeast Asian states, which are used to Chinese maritime maneuvers and recipients of Chinese economic support, are expected to remain friendly.
In November China agreed to negotiate with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a code to prevent accidents at sea by 2018. An official from Beijing said then that China would ensure freedom of navigation for the Southeast Asian states.
China probably intends to stick to both pledges, analysts say. Beijing is mixing "friendly gestures" with "assertive initiatives," said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow who follows Southeast Asia.
"At the end of the day, their South China Sea policy remains unchanged," Bozzato said. "They regard the South China Sea as Chinese waters. It seems to me they have a clear intention to make the South China Sea or most of it Chinese waters by what we could say 2030."
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam assert sovereignty over parts of the same sea, overlapping China's claims. Taiwan also claims the whole sea.
Since 2010 China has angered its neighbors by using landfill to build up islets and installing other military hardware to bolster control. But to reinforce friendships, China has helped the Philippines develop infrastructure since the two sides became friendlier last year, pumped up tourism to Vietnam and invested heavily in Brunei and Malaysia.
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