Just as in 2020, while the world was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, China took aggressive action to push its territorial claims over the South China Sea. Beijing is now taking advantage of the conflict in Ukraine to project its military power over the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of other countries. This was warned by Professor Hoang Viet of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law in Vietnam.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea which covers about 3.5 million square kilometers and has estimated reserves of 190 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. Although in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected its claims, Beijing does not accept that and continues to fight marine areas of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The ruling is “illegal and null and void. China does not accept or recognize it,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated in January in response to the U.S. State Department’s “Limits in the Seas” report in Washington concluding that China’s claims to its “historical sovereignty” of the South China Sea are incompatible with international law and have no legal basis.
Beijing has built artificial islands in the disputed and strategic Spratly Islands archipelago and in 2015 Xi Jinping declared that China had no intention of militarizing them. But on March 21, Admiral John C. Aquilino, United States Indo-Pacific Commander, told the AP that China has already militarized at least three of those islands with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets, “destabilizing to the region.”
The executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, explained that with these new bases:
“China has greatly extended (…) the range that it can send its military forces (…) 1500 to 1600 kilometers from the Chinese mainland” which “presents a security risk to all Southeast Asia” because “if you are the militarily dominant power in the South China Sea you dominate south east Asia (…) That at least was the strategic thinking of the Japanese in the Second World War and I think it is the strategic thinking of China right now.”
In March Beijing deployed a week-long military drill in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which according to Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, former commander-in-chief of Japan’s Self-Defense Fleet, shows that Beijing “is accumulating as many precedents as possible that would support its groundless claims in territorial and EEZ disputes in the South China Sea.”
Beijing has also intensified its illegal exploration of the seabed in other countries’ EEZs in the South China Sea, according to the CSIS report. These surveys, in addition to supporting its territorial claims, would serve the economic purpose of assessing the presence of hydrocarbons while disguising military objectives by using the instruments of scientific research vessels to survey foreign military installations and ships.
China will officially increase its defense spending by 7.1 % in 2022. At $230 billion China reports the second-largest military budget in the world, still far short of the $715 billion U.S. defense budget. But the real Chinese military spending is much higher than reported in its official budget.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — SIPRI — revealed that in 2019 China’s real defense budget was almost 40% higher than the official one. The Center for Strategic and International Studies — CSIS — reached similar conclusions about the high military spending that Beijing does not officially report.
What is certain is that Beijing’s official defense budgets leave out military research and development spending, the military part of the space program and important paramilitary units such as the Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Police, among others.