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Defeat is in the Detail - China’s ambitions in the South China Sea

Image Credit: Tiffini M. Jones, MC 1st Class (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

China’s decision to militarize its holdings in the South China Sea (SCS) represents a dangerous escalation in the ongoing regional dispute, one which threatens to jeopardize peace and security in the region, facilitate a regional arms race and overturn the established international order throughout the Indo-Pacific.

On 3 May 2018, revelations from US intelligence reports through CNBC indicated that China had installed numerous YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles on three of its outposts in the disputed Spratly Island archipelago. These weapons systems stand as some of China’s most capable air defense weapon, being capable of engaging aircraft, cruise missiles and US carrier groups. The Chinese foreign ministry responded to inquiries in stating that China has “irrefutable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands, and that its measures were for self-defensive purposes and not aimed at any country.

The stationing of these weapons marks another turning point in the continuing escalation of conflict in the region and indicates China’s ardent intent towards the eventual establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over part or the entirety of the SCS, mirroring its November 2013 declaration of an ADIZ over dispute islands with Japan in the East China Sea. Achieving control over the SCS aligns with China’s national core interests and would provide Beijing with unprecedented control over a strategic strait considered one of the world’s busiest maritime corridors, with $3.37 trillion in trade passing through the area in 2016, amounting to one-third of global shipping and 21% of global trade.

Accordingly, China’s consistent creeping militarization and salami-slicing strategy precedes the consolidation of its territorial claims in the SCS and presents a significant risk to the longstanding international maritime framework premised on the freedom of navigation and a rules-based global order.

A narrative of escalation

China’s assertive measures and use of force over diplomacy in response to territorial disagreements in the SCS has been well established since the second-half of the twentieth century. In 1974 and 1988 China clashed militarily with both South Vietnam in the Battle of the Paracel Islands, and thereafter Communist Vietnam over features in the Spratly Islands, resulting in a sizable number of casualties. The consequences of these conflicts saw the Chinese foreign ministry link territorial claims to offshore islands with maritime rights, and China set a precedent for the use of force to resolve territorial disputes in the SCS.

In conjunction with the use of force has been China’s strategic patience and salami-slicing tactics in the SCS, one premised on exploiting loopholes and technicalities within its promises. Indeed, China rarely makes promises or commitments in good faith. This can be traced to its declaration to the international community on 6 August 2015 that it had halted reclamation work in the strategic waterway, in an effort to reduce criticism of its construction and island expansion projects on its claimed features. While seemingly a positive development, it was noted that Xi had not expressed China’s intention to freeze its island-building activity, and China thereafter increased its total amount of reclaimed land among its SCS islands from 2,000 to 3,200 acres between 2015 to 2016, constructing such features as aircraft runways and large ports designed to accommodate an increased presence on these islands.

On 25 September 2015, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US, it was indicated by Xi to Obama that China was committed to managing differences and disputes through dialogue, and that “China does not intend to pursue militarization”. However, the underlying meaning of “militarization” was not elaborated upon and appears to have been interpreted broadly by China, given that many of the islands in the Spratly Archipelago were by then already garrisoned with some troops and some minimum level of defensive weaponry by various state parties neighboring the SCS.

Further to this, on 15 August 2017 it was revealed by Philippine National Defense Secretary that China had assured the Philippines that it would not occupy new features or territory in the SCS nor build any additional structures in Scarborough Shoal, with both countries having reached a “modus vivendi” (way to get along). Unsurprisingly, China redirected its focus in intensifying its construction of facilities within the Spratly Archipelago - including airstrips, hangars, and radar and communications facilities – with the likely intent of creating the necessary infrastructure required to sustain its next provocation of stationing significant contingent of soldiers and jet fighters. On Subi reef alone in the Spratly Islands, China has constructed nearly 400 permanent, free-standing buildings on reclaimed land.

In an unexpected move, one which threatens to irretrievably alter the nature of the conflict in the SCS, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced on 18 May 2018 that it landed several H-6K bomber aircraft landed on Woody Island in the Paracel Archipelago. The bomber is the PLA’s most advanced with a range of 3,500 kilometers, and is capable of carrying supersonic cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers, providing China with the capacity to conduct strikes within a radius of 5,000 kilometers across the entirety of the SCS. The incident represents a notable escalation in the militarization of the region. Where previous stationing of anti-air and anti-ship missiles in the SCS were arguably defensive weapons for a professed defensive purpose, the stationing of nuclear capable strategic bombers in the Paracel islands demonstrates an incremental and notable escalation. The decision indicates that China is now actively positioning weapons with offensive capabilities in the SCS.

These strategies have been underlined by China’s development of a blue water navy, one which threatens to turn the Indo-Pacific red. China has been methodically assembling one of the essential engines of global power over the past two decades, seeking a modern navy capable of projecting force far from home. Between 2000 and 2016 China’s navy increased from a total of 163 to 183 vessels – including the notable addition of the one aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2012 – and is expected to expand to 260 total vessels by 2030, including 4 total aircraft carriers. China appears set to fulfil this objective, having launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier for sea trials on 13 May 2018, thus enhancing both its international reputation and ability to project power beyond its shores in the SCS.

Defeat in detail

To establish its dominance over the SCS, China has pursued its objectives through employing defeat in detail. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as a collection of 10-member states in the Southeast Asian region, has continuously expressed its concerns over China’s increasingly assertive moves, the threats posed to their national security, and China’s grand designs for the region. The organization is governed by the principle of “rule-by-consensus” - requiring the collective consent of all member states prior to taking action – which provides an assured certainty of action in exchange for lengthy decision-making processes.

Recognizing the potential collective threat posed by ASEAN, it has sought to exploit the organization’s rule by consensus by exerting influence on individual member states. China has engaged in bilateral diplomacy with Cambodia, having provided substantial amounts of military assistance and aid to the Cambodian military, while signing numerous aid and investment agreements as bilateral trade amounted to $4.8 billion in 2016 and equated to nearly one-fourth of the country’s GDP of $20.02 billion. Likewise, Laos is heavily dependent on Chinese aid as Beijing provided an $800 million foreign development assistance package, while Chinese companies have invested up to $7 billion towards the development of Special Economic Zones, dams, mines, and rubber plantations. These contributed towards Cambodia’s decision to stifle the agreement on a binding code of conduct in the SCS during its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012, and the agreement between China, Laos and Cambodia on 25 April 2016 on how the settle territorial issues in the SCS despite being non-claimants.

While forcing disagreements among ASEAN members, China has also committed itself to the peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes over the SCS with ASEAN nations. In doing so China seeks to come to maintain its favourable balance of power within any negotiations, and systematically isolate and deal with each ASEAN member.


The most favorable outcome in the SCS is one where China unilaterally ceases its island building activities and its militarization of its controlled territories, pending the completion of a code of conduct in the SCS with ASEAN. This would prevent the further militarization of the region, provide an opportunity for diplomacy to be conducted in good faith, and reinforce the rule of law. The US should also recognize the significant affects which China’s aid and infrastructure programs - such as the One Belt-One Road program - is having upon the regional framework and US influence, and commit itself to maintaining its leadership in the region in undertaking competitive aid programs.

The worse possible outcome of China’s assertive policies in the SCS would be where China’s decision to station nuclear-capable strategic bombers in the SCS leads to a regional arms race and a race by involved parties to militarize their holdings, cumulating in military posturing between the US and China with aircraft carriers. This would significantly raise the possibility of conflict, whether intentional or accidental in nature. Further, China’s efforts to frustrate the formation of a Code of Conduct in the SCS within ASEAN may result in the creation of an inadequate agreement, one which leaves individual members vulnerable and enables the continuation of China’s coercive actions.

The most probable outcome is one where the US will continue its intensification of military cooperation and aid with ASEAN members, and will increase the frequency of its freedom of navigation operations in the SCS in upholding freedom of navigation and securing international sea lines. China will also continue in its salami-slicing tactics to isolate and deal with ASEAN members piecemeal, using the carrot in the stick in pushing the notion of joint-development as the only peaceful and logical option, while working to curtail US involvement in the region.

Hanging in the balance is the substantial fishing grounds, maritime transport corridors and natural resources, with between 28 billion barrels of oil and 260 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (US Geological Survey) to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (US Energy Information Agency) estimated to reside in the region. China’s success in the SCS would facilitate the continuation of its economic development and enable it to achieve its goal of becoming a “fully developed, rich, and powerful” nation by 2049. The stakes have never been higher, and the survival of the rule of law and freedom of navigation requites that ASEAN members resolve their differences before it becomes too late. For united we stand, divided we fall.

Jonathan Lim is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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