China announced this week it would station troops on Yongxing Island, a one-square-mile islet in the Paracel Islands (see map). It’s a simple show of muscle, say analysts. “Putting garrisons on Woody Island [as Yongxing Island is known outside China] or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag—to say, ‘We are serious,’” Retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt, former director of East Asia policy at the Defense Department and now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Time.
The move to Yongxing Island comes as disputes over territory in the South China Sea have been heating up. During ASEAN meetings earlier this month, Cambodia, a strong Chinese ally, stonewalled attempts to raise the issue in the regional forum. (China prefers to negotiate territorial disputes with its neighbors bilaterally as opposed to multilaterally.)
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon just concluded what the White House is calling a “low-key” but productive visit to China. NYT correspondent Jane Perlez writes, ”China’s top leaders value their relationship with the White House most of all.” Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to China’s State Council, said that members of China’s top brass ”trust the White House more than the State Department or the Pentagon.”
If, as the White House says, Donilon’s visit was productive, perhaps we’ll see China softening its approach on South China Sea disputes in the future. At the moment, that’s not happening, as hawkish Chinese officials continue to reject neighbors’ claims to islands and territory, and Beijing is doing so with more than just rhetoric: Three Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands earlier this month, followed the very next day by another patrol boat, prompting Tokyo to summon the Chinese ambassador for an explanation. The islands, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Japanese counterpart, are “inherently” Chinese.