Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2015. South China Sea: The tiny islands that could lead to war, Peter Hartcher.

An edited extract of the original article appears below.

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is building towards a flash point.  There is a persistent idea that it’s about nothing more than tiny islands and useless reefs…

The US President, Barack Obama, complained in April that China was using its “sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions”.

China didn’t pay any heed. It said that it was within its sovereign rights and the reclamation proceeded apace, with hundreds of ships dredging and building. The US decided to press the point that it would not accept any intrusion into international air space.

It sent military aircraft to fly over some of the islands last week. China’s navy ordered the Americans to leave the area immediately. They did not. China protested angrily but didn’t shoot…

But still the pressure builds. The US plans to sail and fly past and over the atolls to assert freedom of navigation.  Washington says it is offering $US425 million to the south-east Asian claimants to beef up their navies and coastguards.

On the Chinese side, Beijing says it reserves the right to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone over the area…

“This has the potential to escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not history,” said Malaysia’s Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, on the weekend…

A prominent Chinese general has described the approach to maritime territorial claims as a “cabbage strategy”.

Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, a military theorist with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National Defence University, has said that China puts down one “cabbage leaf”or layer of territorial assertion over another.  First might be ships of the fishing administration, then maritime surveillance vessels, then the Chinese navy. Adding extra layers, such as air defence zones or new bases, is consistent with this way of patiently building a thickening circle of claim by force.

All that’s happened in recent weeks is that the US has decided that it can’t stand by and allow China to dominate the entire region against the will of its smaller neighbours and endanger international right of way.

The US position, which is also Australia’s position, is that it doesn’t take sides in the argument over territory, simply that it wants them settled by negotiation and not force.

The good news is that China’s creeping invasion of the region is now being openly challenged for the first time by a country with the power to do something about it.

The bad news is that there is no solution in sight.

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