How to Oppose China's Bid for Maritime Dominance

Washington should act now to avoid deploying force in the future. 

Beijing has been busy. China has begun to deploy advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to a contested island in the South China Sea. Missile launchers and a radar system are now installed on Woody Island in the Paracels, which were seized by China from South Vietnam in 1974 and remain a source of contention between the two nations. To underscore its commitment to retaining those islands, China sank three Vietnamese ships near the islands in 1988.

The Paracels are separate from another island group, the Spratlys, where China has constructed a number of artificial islands. But both the missile installations and the island building are part of a larger, integrated Chinese effort to establish dominance over the South China Sea.

Specifically, Beijing seeks to establish ownership of land areas encompassed by the so-called “nine-dash line,” which appears on maps drawn by the Nationalist regime in the 1940s. Land features within this area include the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank and Mischief Reef. China has laid claim to them all, and the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam oppose these claims. (Taiwan, as the Republic of China, also makes claims largely congruent with Beijing’s.)

What separates China from the other claimants is its increasingly assertive behavior, coupled with increasingly expansive claims. China regularly argues that other states are engaged in land reclamation. Yet, as the U.S. Department of Defense has noted, China’s land reclamation efforts dwarf all others combined. “Since Chinese land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, China has… reclaimed more than 2900 acres of land.” This compares with eighty acres by Vietnam, seventy by Malaysia, fourteen by the Philippines, and eight by Taiwan. “China has now reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land.”

On at least three of these islands, moreover, China is building a variety of infrastructure, including mile-long runways. Such runways are typical of those associated with the Concorde and the 747-400ER (capable of nonstop transpacific flights)—and are substantially longer than those required by the Su-27 fighter aircraft.

This steady expansion of airfield infrastructure (which will allow the forward deployment of advanced fighter aircraft, such as China’s J-11/Su-27 fleet) is complemented by the apparent decision to deploy advanced SAMs to the Paracels, and likely the Spratlys in the future. The Chinese are dispatching the HQ-9 system, Beijing’s version of the advanced Russian S-300/SA-10 SAM air defense system. The HQ-9 is very advanced and very capable—comparable to the American Patriot SAM. Its deployment creates a 125-mile danger zone around the Paracels and marks a major increase in the scale and capabilities of Chinese forces based in the region.


…Embodying the Whole of Government

China does not rely solely on military force to support its claims. Beijing boasts one of the world’s largest fleets of coast guard vessels and has been adding ten-thousand-ton ships (as large as many World War II–era cruisers) to that inventory. In disputed waters, the Chinese rely on these coast guard vessels, as well as “civilian” fishing boats, to harass or even damage other claimants’ vessels. Ever vigilant about retaining the advantage in manipulating public opinion, the Chinese can claim, correctly, that they have not militarized the disputes, since these are “white-hull” civilian law enforcement vessels.

The use of law enforcement vessels also sends the subtle political message that these territories and waters are, indeed, Chinese national territory; hence, they are patrolled by civilian law enforcement, rather than military forces. This is reinforced by the administrative mechanisms. The vast area of the South China Sea encompassed by the “nine-dash line” (recently revised to ten dashes) includes not only the Paracels and Spratlys, but also Macclesfield Bank and Mischief Reef, as well as the Pratas island group (currently held by Taiwan). To administer these dispersed territories, the Chinese in 2012 elevated the city of Sansha, on Woody Island, to the prefecture level and vested it with authority over all of these islands. Interestingly, Sansha means “three sands,” and the Chinese names for the island groups translate to West Sands (Paracels), South Sands (Spratlys) and Middle Sands (Macclesfield Bank and Mischief Reef).

In 2014, the Chinese unveiled yet another tool. They deployed their deep-sea drilling rig HYSY 981 to disputed waters near Vietnam, and proceeded to conduct drilling activities there. Just as importantly, Wang Yilin, chairman of the state-owned China National Overseas Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which owns HYSY 981, described the rig as “mobile national territory,” a new twist on sovereignty claims. Few private corporate owners would be willing to risk multibillion-dollar investments such as HYSY 981 in such a manner.