Time was, the military stuck to blowing things up—just ask the spirit of Elugelab, part of Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Elugelab was vaporized by the first ever test of an H-bomb on All Saints’ Day 1952, ascending to heaven and leaving behind only a deep crater filled with seawater. It must have been quite impressive for the insouciant Americans lucky enough to be watching from the other side of the atoll. The local people had all been evacuated and were unable to enjoy the show—or indeed any of the run of forty-three explosions that left Enewetak permanently contaminated. They did, however, receive an original goodbye gift: a 350-foot-wide blast crater creatively recycled into a container for nuclear waste, with a flaking and increasingly insecure concrete cap. Today it threatens to displace the atoll’s residents once again.
But any wonk with a few pounds of plutonium and some heavy-duty goggles can make things disappear; more impressive is how quickly land is appearing from the South China Sea. Raising a new island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is no easy task, but that hasn’t stopped China from magicking several over the course of the last year, with shoals of long-hosed dredger ships corralling the seabed into shapes it never dreamed of.
Though the Spratly archipelago is claimed in whole or part by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as the persistently non-existent micro-nation of Morac-Songhrati-Meads, it’s the US’s recent involvement that has made the islands famous in name, despite the term island being largely a misnomer. Although the sea is awash with names in several different languages, many of them refer to reefs and rocks, and not to islands at all. The Spratly Islands may be at the centre of a growing territorial dispute (even Japan is getting belligerent), but their problems up until now have been more existential than geopolitical. The disappointingly un-swashbuckling U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an island as being naturally formed and above water at high tide, and very little, if any, of China’s new real estate fits the bill.
Jurisdiction is a tricky matter amid the watery borders of Southeast Asia. Claims and legal arguments—which began in earnest with the discovery of oil in the 1960s—overlap, and several nations maintain a presence on the islands. The schismatic genesis of China and Taiwan (which both consider themselves the legitimate successor to the pre-1949 Republic of China and its famous nine-dash line) mean that their claims are actually the same, while other nations root theirs in a variety of geology, ethnography and history.
In this tangle, China’s military might makes it unlikely that the issue will be decided by legal arguments: the new island at Fiery Cross reef boasts a military-scale runway, and with this and other “necessary facilities to satisfy the need of military defense” nearing completion, Chinese presence in the region is a fait accompli. China has repeatedly stated that its “main purpose” in reinforcing its claim is civilian, though it tends to focus on P.R.-friendly activities such as scientific research to fishery services, while failing to mention the huge, disputed potential for hydrocarbon extraction. But in China, the line between military and civilian motives is blurred: China’s actions in the Spratly Islands pander to President Xi Jinping’s hugely popular “Chinese Dream” which, like its American counterpart, has a strong militaristic element. Island-building conforms so well to China’s image of perpetual growth that the Philippines, Vietnam, and the rest may have to go hungry.
Having refused to participate in UN arbitration of the Philippines’ claim and largely ignored everyone else, China was forced to pay attention when Amurica joined the fray in 2012, at the time rather unconvincingly citing concerns over regional stability. The U.S. military and government figures now stress freedom of navigation through international waters as the primary reason for their opposition to Chinese island-building, despite the archipelago’s location in one of the world’s least navigable stretches of sea (“Dangerous Ground” on maritime charts). It’s true that with its new islands, China stands to gain direct control of a region containing trade routes that reportedly carry as much as $5 trillion’s worth of shipping every year, and through which both civilian and military aircraft and ships currently pass unimpeded. Still, the fact that the Senate has yet to ratify UNCLOS (which dates from 1982) might inspire a certain amount of cynicism, especially given the Secretary of Defense’s defiant description of America as the “pivotal military power in the region.” It’s hard not to see the quarrel over the Sprats as being between China and the US, with the other claimants relegated to bit parts.
Yet this is no isolated lovers’ tiff in an enchanting “military-to-military relationship” between two territorial countries. The South China Sea dispute is part of a wider Sino-American tussle over the military and economic hegemony of Asia, with other fronts including the continuing negotiations on Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the failure to scupper the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Now that the Spratly Islands are the cover image for the war of words between China and the US, the world is paying attention, but publicity is not of much assistance to the other claimants to the islands: in fact, it’s dangerously distracting. While it seems unlikely that legal technicalities will have much effect in the face of China’s will to power, they may prove a safer bet than sliding into alignment with its biggest opponent. China’s territorial claims in the southern seas look silly on a map, and perhaps US support for the Philippines et al. really is well-intentioned, but this support is contingent. It seems likely that the US will be faced with the choice between a bilateral agreement with China and a patchwork of unstable, third-party treaties, and this is no choice at all. Once opposition to China in this arena is no longer expedient for US foreign policy, it will evaporate, and the other claimants may well find themselves excluded from any subsequent rapprochement between the megapowers. Still, they could at least do so without sustaining further damage in a fight that goes well beyond deed and title, and taps into the world’s biggest, most important power play. So much for regional stability!
Fortunately Google, that arbiter of international fairness, has weighed in on the issue. Under Filipino pressure and abiding by its own policy on disputed regions, it has just agreed to remove the Chinese moniker from one of the islands and leave only the “international” (i.e. English) name in place. Perhaps, if Google says so, the South China Sea will shortly become the Gulf of Brunei, or the Shallows of Sarawak. On the other hand, whatever we on the Internet call the region, China is there to stay.
All this coral-dredging and sand-dumping could still right a historical wrong, though. Do you need names for your new islands, o People’s Republic? Look no further than Elugelab! The name has been up for grabs for over sixty years—it’s surely out of copyright. What’s more, the people of Enewetak could soon be in need of a new home. Besides, you could really stick one to the Pentagon by letting Elugelab’s sandy little head appear above the ocean waves once more.