Ron Huisken, nationalinterest.org
The Asia-Pacific continued over the past year to squander its most precious asset: the confident expectation that the region could preserve order and stability while managing a strategic transformation of historic proportions. The states of the region are still spending a lot of time in dialogue but along critical channels the degree of engagement, communication, and understanding appears to have encountered sharply diminishing returns. ...
Beijing ... quietly launched a carefully pre-planned program to develop seven submerged features in the Spratly Group in the South China Sea into artificial islands, some large enough to dock ships and/or with 3,000-meter runways for medium-sized fixed wing aircraft. This program surged rapidly into a frantic, large-scale operation that, in the age of satellite photography, gradually pushed the rest of Beijing’s foreign and security policy agenda off center stage. By mid-2015, the political climate in the Asia-Pacific had become noticeably colder and more complicated.
The U.S. pointedly flew maritime surveillance aircraft close to the new islands and several naval exercises were conducted in the area (Japan – Philippines; US-Philippines; and China). ASEAN leaders (in April 2015) and foreign ministers (in August 2015) issued statements that described this lightning transformation of the Spratly Island group as having “…eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” Beijing’s public diplomacy on the episode was something of a tangle, ranging from pugnacious statements that it could do whatever it wanted with its possessions in the South China Sea, through claiming that it was doing no more than other claimants had already done, to the assertion that the new islands would enable China to be a better neighbor in the area. Beijing has discreetly but carefully protected the option of using the new islands to introduce new military capabilities to the South China Sea. This will further ensure that this issue will become imbedded as a source of controversy and instability.