China may soon cross President Barack Obama’s red line and attempt to dramatically alter the status quo in the South China Sea.
Since the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last month, China has been eager to reassert its dominance in the South China Sea. China has already reclaimed vast amounts of land in both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands and outfitted these territories with military structures and equipment. By proceeding with plans for reclamation work on the contested Scarborough Shoal, China would gain control of the South China Sea’s “strategic triangle,” and significantly boost its regional power projection capabilities.
The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that China will not conduct any reclamation work on the Scarborough Shoal prior to the G20 Summit scheduled to be held in Hangzhou next month. Reclamation may very well start before the U.S. presidential election in November. The territory is claimed by China but located within the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In March, President Barack Obama issued a warning to Chinese President Xi Jinping that there would be “serious consequences” if China pushed forward with its reclamation plans for the Scarborough Shoal. China decided to withdraw its ships from the area.
Some observers saw China’s retreat as a clear U.S. victory and a turning point in the South China Sea. New reports suggest the U.S. may have merely won a round in a much larger contest for geopolitical power, and that makes sense given China’s willingness to play the long game.
An unidentified source told the South China Morning Post that, “since the G20 will be held in Hangzhou next month and regional peace will be the main topic among leaders of the great powers, China will refrain from acting on its reclamation plan.”
The same source also said, “President Barack Obama will focus on domestic issues ahead of the election as he needs to pass down legacies before leaving office. That might make him busy, and he might not have time to take care of regional security issues.”
The Scarborough Shoal is “a must for China,” explained the unidentified source. The militarization of the shoal could extend the reach of China’s air force by 620 miles and ensure coverage of Luzon, the “gateway to the Pacific.”
According to the Washington Free Beacon, China has been stepping up its presence near the Scarborough Shoal in recent weeks. Over the past few years, China has limited the deployment of naval vessels near the disputed shoal, but lately, more than a dozen naval vessels, along with scores of fishing vessels, have made their presence known in the area.
The evidence suggests that Beijing may be attempting to do in the South China Sea what it is presently doing in the East China Sea. China sent over 300 ships to the disputed Senkaku Islands, and now China appears to be adopting a similar strategy for the Scarborough Shoal.
A Beijing-based military expert informed the South China Morning Post that the Scarborough Shoal, “is one of Beijing’s key strategic positions in the South China Sea…China will definitely build up its maritime security forces on it.”
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