China's Island-Building Has Neighbors On Edge, But Tensions May Be Easing
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Chinese and American officials are holding an annual meeting this week in Washington, hashing out the two nations' complex relationship. In addition to economic and strategic issues, they will discuss China's remarkable island-building in the South China Sea. In just 18 months, China has created more than 2000 acres of new land, where before there were just waves and reefs. Beijing says it's just trying to protect territorial claims in disputed waters, but America sees a threat to regional stability. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Beijing says it's built the islands to catch up with other neighbors, such as Vietnam, which has also done reclamation, but China's has been on an epic scale. And Feng Zhang, who teaches international relations at Australian National University, says future plans could include a naval base.
FENG ZHANG: The purpose is to develop a limited degree of military deterrence, primarily against the United States Navy.
LANGFITT: In 2011, the Obama administration pledged to shift more military hardware to Asia in what it then called a pivot. That set off alarm bells in Beijing.
XU QINDUO: So what's the target? What's the purpose?
LANGFITT: Xu Qinduo has worked for state-run China Radio International and is a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne.
QINDUO: It's quite clear. It's targeting China. There's a strong, growing suspicion from the Chinese side and the Chinese military - you know, what the U.S. is going to do and what the U.S. can do basically to contain the rise of China.
LANGFITT: According to official Chinese rhetoric, the islands are to help safe navigation and search and rescue, but neighbors are deeply suspicious. Last year, China placed an oil rig in disputed waters nearer to Vietnam's coast than to China's. That led to clashes between boats from both countries and riots in Vietnam. David Finkelstein directs the China studies program at the Center for Naval Analysis, a government-funded think tank in Arlington, Va.
DAVID FINKELSTEIN: We've got tremendous perception gap going on here between China and its neighbors. They see a China that's trying to resolve these disputes by force of economic and military muscle. And, of course, that's how the U.S. sees this.
LANGFITT: China managed to avoid heavy international criticism as it constructed the islands, until recently, when the U.S. Navy flew a spy plane near an island with a CNN crew aboard. The Chinese warned the plane it was approaching a military zone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the Chinese Navy. This is the Chinese Navy. Please go away quickly.
LANGFITT: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter publicly criticized China. Yanmei Xie says China didn't fully anticipate the backlash. Xie's a Beijing-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
YANMEI XIE: They expected negative responses, but they were surprised that it could become such a regional issue - it could become such an international issue.
LANGFITT: Xie says advisors may have been reluctant to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping that the tactics were likely to boomerang.
XIE: Xi Jinping is considered to be a more nationalist, more ambitious leader with higher risk tolerance, so everybody tries to provide analysis and policy recommendations based on what they believe the leader wants to hear.
LANGFITT: Last week, Beijing said it plans to complete some of its reclamation soon. Some observers think U.S. criticism may have contributed to the announcement's timing, as well as China's desire for smoother talks this week and a successful summit in September, when President Xi meets President Obama in Washington. Robert Griffiths is a former consul general in Shanghai and teaches at the National Defense University. Making clear he wasn't representing the U.S. government, he offered this.
ROBERT GRIFFITHS: I think, though, that if you look at Chinese behavior over the past years and decades, you'll see that they sometimes push the envelope and then will pull back. They really don't want to have poor relations with all their neighbors.
LANGFITT: Or for now, at least, with the United States. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.