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U.S., Other Countries Watch China's Movement In South China Sea


Here are a few things we know about China. It's the world's most populous country. It has spread its influence around the world with massive foreign investments. And now, China appears to be flexing its muscle, just when some see U.S. influence in the world beginning to fade.


Analysts say China is building a string of pearls. That is a series of ports and facilities that some suspect could be used by China's military. They are being built as far away as the Middle East and Africa and closer to home in the South China Sea near some longtime U.S. allies.

GREENE: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a group of diplomats gathered in Singapore over the weekend that the United States was, quote, "deeply concerned" about China's recent activity in the South China Sea, where it's essentially building up islands.


ASH CARTER: China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimant's combined and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months. It's unclear how much farther China will go.

GREENE: Now the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to that with this, quote, "the United States disregards history, legal principles and the facts. China's sovereignty and relevant rights were established a long time ago in the South China Sea."

MONTAGNE: The ministry spokesperson went on to say that China's island-building is, quote, "legal, reasonable, conforms to the situation and neither impacts nor targets any country.

GREENE: For more on what exactly China's doing and potentially why, we turn to NPR's two China -based correspondents, Anthony Kuhn in Beijing and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Both of them are on the line. Welcome to you both.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thanks very much, David.

GREENE: Anthony, let me start with you in Beijing. I mean, can you just sort of orient us if you can? Where is the South China Sea? And then tell us what exactly is going on there right now.

KUHN: One way to describe it is this sort of tongue-shaped body of water that sticks out south of China and into Southeast Asia. And in it are lots of little islands, which look just like round specks of sand and coral. But there's a lot of land reclamation going on on those islands, a lot of sand being piled onto them. And that changes the way they look - straight lines start to appear and streets and harbors and buildings. And Vietnam and the Philippines have also built on the reefs, but China is doing it a lot faster and on a much bigger scale.

GREENE: OK, so trying to develop these islands and put infrastructure there and so forth, I mean, why is China doing it and why now?

KUHN: In its official rhetoric, China's government is saying that all this construction in the South China Sea can eventually be used to provide public services, things like maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention, weather forecasting. But if you speak to scholars, they will generally admit that China is building up these islands to strengthen its territorial claims. China just considers the South China Sea a very strategic and hotly-contested area, and it intends to have a very robust presence there. Now also remember some big historical trends. For most of China's history, the main threats were seen as coming from the steppes of Central Asia, which is why they built the Great Wall. But since the Opium War in 1840, invaders have mostly come by sea. So now China is a major maritime trading power and a lot of its manufacturing and export muscle is lined up on its seaboard.

GREENE: OK, well, Frank Langfitt, let me turn to you. The idea of building something akin to a Great Wall in the sea has to get the attention of other countries. I mean, one country nearby watching all this is the Philippines. How are they reacting?

LANGFITT: Well, they're feeling, I think, bullied and worried. The Philippines doesn't have much of a navy. It's a smaller country, obviously, and they rely on the United States. They have a defense treaty with the United States, but I think many in the Philippines feel concerned that the U.S. is so consumed by things in the Middle East, not doing enough to necessarily try to stop China. Now, there's a guy I know, Dindo Manhit; he runs Stratbase - it's a think tank in Manila. And he says that the more that China's able to build without any repercussions, that actually strengthens voices in the Philippines saying, well, you know, maybe the alliance with the United State isn't the future. Here's how he put it.

DINDO MANHIT: It created an opportunity for pro-China elements in my country. Maybe we are on the wrong side of history. Maybe this is a declining power.

GREENE: Wow, so some serious doubts potentially about the role and influence of the United States in this region. I mean, is that concern shared by other countries?

LANGFITT: It is. It's been in the background for years here. And I think the concern here is not that the United States doesn't care. The United States clearly is very interested in this part of the world, but concern about staying power and commitment. You hear this a lot. I was talking to a guy named William Choong, and he's in Singapore. He works for a think tank - International Institute for Strategic Studies - and he was focusing on how clever the Chinese strategy is - making these advances, but not doing too much and avoiding drawling in the United States. Choong and others here call it salami slicing. Here's how we put it.

WILLIAM CHOONG: Essentially, China is trying to advance its claim on the South China Sea in incremental steps. The steps are not big enough to provoke a kind of a very stern or even a military response.

LANGFITT: But over time, just as Anthony was pointing out, the Chinese are creating facts on the water. And here's Choong's assessment of that strategy.

CHOONG: I think that it's simply brilliant.

GREENE: Interesting, simply brilliant, he says, this salami slicing. Anthony Kuhn, I mean, he says not enough to provoke a military response. But there have been to military tensions already, right?

KUHN: Yes, there have been. One of the core issues is that the U.S. has been gathering intelligence and eavesdropping on China's doorstep over the waters of the South China Sea since the Cold War, and they intend to keep doing that. But China is increasingly unwilling to put up with that. And we saw that recently when a U.S. spy plane flew by these islands with a CNN TV crew aboard. And the Chinese navy tried to shoo them away, but they didn't go. Also, China wants earlier warnings about any potential hostile ships or planes heading its way. And there are concerns that it might set up some sort of air defense zone, which would limit transit through the area.

GREENE: China's territorial disputes have always been with their neighbors, not the United States. But Frank Langfitt, is this, you know, another step in a geopolitical contest between these two superpowers?

LANGFITT: I think there are more than a few analysts who would say that this is really a rivalry between a rising power, China, and a status-quo power, the United States, which has controlled the Western Pacific since World War II. You know, all big, rising powers, they want a sphere of influence. Take the United States - the United States wanted the Caribbean for itself in the 19th century. China clearly wants the South China Sea. And building islands is seen as a first step to kind of establish a bigger footprint there. I think the question on many people's minds here is what, if anything, is the United States going to do about it?

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's two China-based correspondents - Anthony Kuhn in Beijing and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Guys, thank you both.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

KUHN: Thank you very much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.