South China Sea: Leoni warns of a 'block on flow of global trade'
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Zeno Leoni, a defence studies lecturer at King’s College London, told the Daily Express that Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone back on “promises” made to former US President Barack Obama that China would not militarise islands in the South China Sea. There have been mounting tensions in the region as China ignored an international court ruling against them over some of the islands, as Jinping maintains the islands are a sovereign right of China.
Prof Leoni said: “Since 2013 and 2015, when Xi Jinping has met Obama, there were promises that [China] would not occupy and militarise islands [in the South China sea].
“This has happened nonetheless. Very slowly, in a sort of grey zone warfare kind of thing, acting below the threshold of outright warfare.
“I think this will continue, I suspect, again in a nuanced manner, trying not to upset western powers.
“And if China was to complete a weaponisation of these islands, that could be quite a game-changer, not so much in the region but locally, around the South China Sea, because that means that China could, if it wanted, blackmail other countries and block the flow of global trade for example.”
It was revealed towards the end of March this year that China has fully militarised at least three small artificial islands in the South China Sea, according to a US military commander,
The islands, located near the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the South China Sea, have been reportedly constructed by the Chinese military, before being armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.
US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C Aquilino said the islands “threaten all nations who operate” in the area, through which approximately $5 trillion (£4 trillion) in goods are shipped every year to destinations across the globe.
He said: “The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the People’s Republic of China beyond their continental shores.
“They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.
“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands.
“They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.”
Admiral Acquilino reported at the time that during his visit, while onboard a US navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the Spratly archipelago, China sent warnings to “stay away” despite no legal obligation to do so.
Official Chinese communications said over the aircraft’s intercom: “China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment.”
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The Philippines, located just 100 miles from the Spratly archipelago, successfully claimed rights to the islands via an international court in 2016, which then lawfully obliged China to withdraw activity in the region.
But China has laid claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, based on a U-shaped nine-dash line drawn in the 1940s by a Chinese geographer, and has consistently refused to give up any territory in the area.
President Xi Jinping dismissed the court’s result, saying it had no effect on the “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” of China.
And while the US government rejected nearly all of China’s claims, it remains a patrolling force unwilling to engage militarily, and is without any personal territory in the South China Sea.
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