China tightens its grip on the South China Sea

| June 10, 2018

Waves remain choppy between the United States and China in the South China Sea.In March and April, both countries undertook extensive naval exercises in the area.

China’s exercises involved its aircraft carrier and more than 40 warships, while the United States had three aircraft carrier battle groups exercising at separate times. One US exercise also involved Japan.

The latest step in this escalating competition is China’s reported installation of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three of its claimed features in the Spratly Islands: Fiery Cross ReefSubi Reef and Mischief Reef.

In doing so, China has effectively ‘boxed in’ the Spratly Islands — Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef are roughly the western and eastern extremities of the island group, and Subi Reef forms the northern apex of the triangle based on the three features.

China now has the potential capability to oppose all air and sea movement within or through the Spratlys, though this capability would be undermined in practice by the fact that these reefs are highly vulnerable and could readily be neutralised in any ‘hot war’ stituation.

The South China Sea is of great strategic importance to China: it contains China’s major naval base at Sanya in Hainan and is vital for China’s access to the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean. As well as installing missile systems in the Spratlys, China has previously installed anti-air and anti-surface missile systems in the Paracel Islands and in Hainan.

These are all part of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, the aim of which is to exercise control of waters inside the first island chain. To implement this strategy, China has been working hard to develop its land-based missile systems.

In response to the A2/AD strategy, the United States developed the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (initially known as the Air–Sea Battle concept). This is an aggressive doctrine focussed on the development of integrated forces capable of gaining and maintaining air, maritime, space and cyberspace superiority.

If China continues to increase its control over the South China Sea, the doctrine permits the United States to initiate even stronger responses.

In a meeting with then US president Obama in September 2015, China’s President Xi Jinping made a public commitment not to ‘militarise China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Despite this pledge, Beijing has continued the construction of military and dual-use facilities on the Spratly Islands. It defends these developments as part of its right to protect its bases in the Spratly Islands against new moves by other nations.

These developments in the South China Sea are of great concern to Southeast Asian countries. The South China Sea is their backyard and is vital to the maintenance of intra-ASEAN trade as well as to their trade with Northeast Asia.

But these states are rarely critical now of China for its actions — they recognise the reality of China’s ascendancy in the region, the declining influence of the United States and the economic opportunities that China provides.

Most do not share the United States’ views on the need for an aggressive military response to China. They now have plans to go ahead with an ASEAN–China maritime exercise as part of deepening ASEAN–China defence ties.

Given its importance to trade and regional stability, demilitarising the South China Sea should be a common ideal both for the ASEAN states and for the major powers. But no existing regional forum has been prepared to address the implications of greater military activity in the South China Sea and the resultant increased tensions.

Regional forums have so far been content with purely rhetorical statements that pay lip service to the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of activities by claimants and other states.

With recent developments in the South China Sea, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future. The United States is still seeking to maintain strategic domination of the region while China increasingly challenges that domination.

China continues to develop denial-of-access capabilities, while the United States is focussing on offensively oriented concepts to assert access. But these strategies only add to the security dilemma for both Washington and Beijing.

As far as most Southeast Asian countries are concerned, China should refrain from activities that appear assertive or aggressive, and the United States should step back from its high level of naval activity.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.