Relations between the two powers are becoming increasingly strained due to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Over the course of the last year and a half, China has reclaimed 2,000 acres of land from the sea, constructing man-made islands from a number of submerged reefs, writes David Pilling for The Financial Times. The work is being carried out to strengthen Beijing’s territorial claims in the region, which are disputed by a number of countries.

U.S. And China Entering New Cold War?

China attempting to boost territorial claims

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have rival claims to the Spratly Islands, which are located near China’s new facilities. Beijing has seen fit to construct piers, harbors and multistorey buildings, as well as a 3 kilometer runway which can handle every type of military aircraft which its forces currently possess.

Such a surge in activity has not gone unnoticed by other nations which maintain territorial claims. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, president of the Philippines, used a recent speech in Tokyo to liken China’s land reclamation program to the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia.

The U.S. has spoken out in defense of its regional allies, and defense secretary Ashton Carter said that China’s actions are “out of step” with international norms. He maintained that the U.S. would “fly, sail and operate” according to international law, and denied that “turning an underwater rock into an airfield” would strengthen Beijing’s claims of sovereignty.

Nor would the action restrict any other nation’s right to pass through the area, Carter said. He later called on all claimants to end any land reclamation programs in the South China Sea.

Is China acting illegally?

Although Carter certainly appears to talk a good game, it may transpire that the U.S. cannot ultimately do very much at all to control the situation. U.S. military planes keep flying over China’s new islands, with little effect. Beijing is still building despite U.S. opposition, and there remains a danger that China continues to successfully call Washington’s bluff.

The difficulties in the South China Sea arise from the fact that China is not actually doing anything illegal. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have also reclaimed land, just not to the extent that China has.

Furthermore legal experts maintain that China’s claim to the Spratly Islands may be of some substance. Although the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia are all closer to the islands than China, one lesson that can be learned from the Falklands/Malvinas controversy between the UK and Argentina is that proximity is not a decisive factor.

Beijing also continues to toe the line regarding freedom of navigation, although it does seek to restrict military activity in the waters that it claims. On this point Beijing may contravene international law due to the fact that it is attempting to extend these restrictions to man-made islands. Controversy arose recently when the Chinese navy told a U.S. military surveillance plane to leave the area near the newly constructed islands, but it is not clear how far the U.S. is willing to go to stand up to increasing levels of Chinese aggression.

Risk of escalation in the area

Officials have previously considered sending warships to within 12 miles of the artificial islands, and may feel obliged to follow through on that threat. Such a move could lead to escalation in the area, given the likelihood that China responds by sending its own warships.

Another way that China could raise the stakes in the South China Sea is by declaring an air defense identification zone over all or part of it, which would theoretically mean that incoming aircraft would have to report their presence to Beijing.

Should relations between the two powers descend into a game of bluff, analysts believe that China may outlast the U.S. Commentators have noticed a pattern in Beijing’s actions, involving picking fights over small matters which the U.S. may concede. However a steady buildup of such seemingly trivial matters contributes to an increasingly strong challenge to U.S. primacy in the region.

Chinese strategy proving successful thus far

According to Australian academic Hugh White, Beijing is engaged in a plan to cut “very thin slices of a very long sausage.” That sausage takes the form of a resetting of relations between China and the U.S., one which would grant Beijing greater respect and power in the region. Chinese president Xi Jinping has already expressed a desire for a new “great power relationship” in Asia.

Although such a development would not constitute a threat to U.S. global hegemony, it would present a significant challenge in Asia. China believes that it should be considered at least an equal in the region.

Ongoing developments in the South China Sea are a key part of such a strategy. Security expert Carl Thayer writes that “China has changed ‘facts on the ground’ and presented the region with a fait accompli”. The U.S. is now finding out that it is impossible to take any great action when faced with faits accomplis like the artificial islands.