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DigitalGlobe imagery of the nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group.
But beyond that, Patalano said, China’s actions have no historical precedent.
“There is not a precedent of this kind, and this is for two reasons,” Patalano told CNBC. “First until recently, technology didn’t allow nation states to project power over the oceans as it is possible today. Second, today’s degree of interdependence has no precedent in history, therefore issues over the ability of shipping to move through this basin has potential impact on the international system in a way that was not possible previously.”
The South China Sea for years has been a point of contention for bordering nations besides China, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, but in recent years has become a larger nexus of disagreement as China has unilaterally declared the region its own. China’s fishing fleet, the world’s biggest, operates increasingly within the legally exclusive zones of Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and other countries.
A tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to rule in the next couple months on China’s expansive territorial claims, though China has already rejected those proceedings.