Does China Really Want to Be the South China Sea's Policeman?

Sailors aboard the Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/U.S. navy

Uncertainty creates a vicious cycle in Asia's arms race.

A 2015 Chinese publication of geopolitical strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s 1890 treatise, The Influence of Seapower upon History, carries an arresting image of an aircraft carrier on its cover. Featured on the cover of a 2007 edition of the same book is presumably a view of the South China Sea, and a yellow banner that asks, “What are the biggest strategic risks facing a rising China?”. With its critical access to the Straits of Malacca and Indian Ocean, the South China Sea is China’s physical and figurative Mahanian gateway for naval expansion and global power.

Mahan’s dictum that the nation that controls the seas holds the upper hand pushes China to seek prestige and profile through maritime supremacy. However, upscaling military capabilities and infrastructure in the South China Sea undercuts China’s grand strategy. Militarization blurs the lines between defense and offense and thrusts China into the costly role of regional policeman. It also casts a long shadow over any regional leadership aspirations and fuels an arms race in Asia that compromises China’s pursuit of world power status.

With China ascendant, the transformation of motley reefs, shoals and ridges into military-grade outposts in the South China Sea highlights what is at stake in Asia’s security calculus. New satellite imagery from a long-term monitoring project, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), reveals that China has installed anti-aircraft guns and emplacements for close-in weapons systems to detect and destroy short-range cruise missile strikes along a southern arc of the South China Sea.

These new additions enhance China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and are the latest in what has been a steady militarization of the Spratly Islands. In early 2014, Chinese vessels began dredging sand to build the submerged rocks and reefs into artificial islands. China has since built up a total of seven artificial islands in the area, and constructed infrastructure such as barracks, lighthouses, fuel depots, ammunition bunkers and military-grade runways.

The Costs of Carrying a Big Stick

Images of new construction have elicited concern across the Asia-Pacific because militarization has muddied the distinction between defense and offense in the theater of conflict. Although China’s Defense Ministry insisted on its “legitimate…defense and self-defense purposes”, these new facilities and weapons systems enhance the expeditionary capability of the PLA air force and navy and allow China to maintain combat air patrol in addition to routine surveillance over the South China Sea. In pursuing great power status, Beijing risks sending the wrong message about its rise. It’s unclear how much China wants to change “the rules of the game” from being a stakeholder to imposing a new regional order. Does this new order allow for honoring commitments and managing interdependence? Or will policing the region leave room for little else besides self-interests and power politics?

Establishing control in surrounding waters and an air defense identification zone, for example, may give rise to scenarios that render the strict defensive versus offensive demarcation moot. In 2013, China declared its right to monitor and intercept aircraft over the East China Sea surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan remained unconvinced that A2/AD strategies were defensive and denounced the move as “unilateral”, “restricting” and “unacceptable.” The United States countered by scrambling fighter jets through the airspace to stress the need for freedom of navigation.