As delegates assemble for the 14th annual Asia Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, regional tensions are running high over China’s island building in the South China Sea.  As the weekend summit gets under way, here are the issues to watch.

Stormy Seas and Skies: In the last several months, the region and the world have grown increasingly concerned about China’s buildup in the Spratly Islands.  The following developments have occurred in the month of May:

  • We now know that China has created artificial islands at seven different locations in the Spratlys, reclaimed at least 2,000 acres of new land, and is now militarizing these outposts. It has nearly finished building an airstrip on one island. The latest photos of the China’s new islands can be found here.
  • Top U.S. policymakers, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter have spoken out against China’s militarization of the islands and called for the peaceful resolution of disputes. Chinese officials continue to maintain that the islands are Chinese sovereign territory, that they have civilian as well as military purposes, and that the United States should not intervene in their affairs.
  • The Pentagon has reportedly considered sending planes and vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s land features to demonstrate that the United States did not recognize these as rocks or islands under international law.
  • The USS Fort Worth littoral combat ship was tailed by a Chinese frigate while conducting patrols near the Spratly Islands.
  • Last week, the Pentagon released video of a P-8 aerial patrol over some of China’s artificial features. In the video, Chinese military personnel repeatedly warned off the U.S. aircraft, but the U.S. pilot maintained that he was in international airspace, conducting lawful activities.
  • This morning, reports are out that China has placed new mobile artillery on one of its artificial Spratly features.

Island Ire:  These recent developments raise several pressing concerns and questions, many of which are likely to be addressed by leaders at Shangri-La. These include:

  • What does China intend to do with its Spratly outposts? To what extent will they be militarized? Can other countries dissuade China from a serious military buildup?
  • What does China believe its rights are under international law when it comes to the seas and skies around these islands?
  • Will China’s presence on the islands threaten freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the South China Sea?
  • How will China’s island buildup affect an ongoing international legal case that has been brought by the Philippines against China over its South China Sea claims?
  • Will ASEAN countries demonstrate unified concern on these issues?
  • Given the importance of their relationships with China, how will the United States and countries in the region demonstrate a concerted response?

Who to Watch: These issues are likely to take center stage several times as Shangri-La unfolds. Keep an eye out for strong South China Sea statements from the following speakers on Saturday, May 30 and Sunday, May 31 (all times are in Singapore):

  • Saturday, 9:00 am- U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
  • Saturday, 3:00 pm- PACOM Commander Harry Harris
  • Sunday, 9:00 am- Chinese Chief of the General Staff Admiral Sun Jianguo

The full agenda is available here.  Check back with AMTI for more South China Sea developments as Shangri-La unfolds.

About Michael Green

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS and an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005, first as director for Asian affairs, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia.

About Mira Rapp-Hooper

Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She was previously director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow in the Asia Program at CSIS