Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ

April 27, 2015 Topic: China Region: South China Sea Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaSouth China SeaIsland Reclamation

Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ

First the Great Wall, then the Grand Canal, and now the Great Wall of Sand.

Why Now?

Several factors offer reason to believe that Beijing will declare a SCS ADIZ of some sort by January 20, 2017.

First, Xi Jinping’s own widely supported goals include rapidly transforming China into a “great maritime power.” Embodying Chinese leadership consensus, Xi views this transformation as vital for China’s comprehensive national development and ascent to great power status as part of China’s national rejuvenation. To this end, he calls for Beijing to “strategically manage the sea.” Xi’s directives and vigorous implementation have important implications for the SCS specifically. The “three million-square kilometers of blue territory” invoked frequently by Chinese officials and civilians alike includes nearly 90 percent of the combined area of the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. As the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence documents, China “has never published the coordinates of” the Nine-Dash Line that it draws around virtually the entire SCS—perilously close to the coasts of its neighbors, all of whom it has disputes with. It has not “declared what rights it purports to enjoy in this area.” 

Regardless, the SCS clearly contains Beijing’s broadest and most numerous claims. And Xi has charged Chinese forces with The Middle Kingdom has deployed some of its most advanced forces, including three nuclear ballistic missile submarines in this theater, which will only become more important as China becomes increasingly active in and over the trade- and energy-rich sea lanes crisscrossing Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Second, China wants to punish the Philippines with “facts on the ground” for bringing their bilateral territorial dispute to an international tribunal with a ~7,000-page submission before that body hands down a judgment—which Beijing will almost certainly reject categorically. 

While the exact timing remains unclear, the tribunal could conceivably issue a judgment by mid-2015. “It is clear to us that China is accelerating its expansionist agenda and changing the status quo to actualize its ‘nine-dash line’ claim and to control nearly the entire South China Sea,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario states, “before the conclusion of the Code of Conduct and the handing down of a decision of the arbitral tribunal on the Philippine submission.” 

Third, Xi and other Chinese leaders unfortunately appear to believe that the U.S. has few good options below the threshold of military intervention, and that the Obama Administration is weak and distracted. These assumptions seem to favor making rapid progress now to present a future U.S. president—such as Hillary Clinton, whom Chinese observers fear could be tougher than both her current competitors and potential predecessor—with a fait accompli.

For all these reasons, China’s neighbors and the U.S. worry increasingly that Beijing intends to assert similar creeping control over the waters and airspace of SCS—one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes, yet home to numerous island and maritime claims disputes.

Chinese Restraint?

It is to be hoped that the above concerns are unfounded, and that Beijing decides instead to exercise restraint. On April 9, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated, “We are concerned by the scope and pace of China’s land reclamation activities, which are inconsistent with China’s own past commitments to ASEAN countries. We are especially concerned at the prospect of militarization of these outposts. These activities seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions. We urge China to limit its activities and exercise restraint to improve regional trust.” Philippines Foreign Secretary Del Rosario has called on China to halt unilateral actions that he charges violate international laws and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. “Such actions undermine efforts to pursue the peaceful, rules-based resolution of disputes in the South China Sea and to promote regional stability.” 

There are many highly visible, verifiable ways in which Beijing could demonstrate restraint. TheSouth China Morning Post inadvertently offered one example when it paraphrased Chinese Ambassador Cui as stating at the International Conference on China-U.S. Cooperation in Global Security Affairs that China is “building its first airstrip on the Spratly Islands only to provide supply and maintenance for passing ships.” Unfortunately, the Hong Kong-based newspaper got the wording wrong. Maritime specialist Isaac Kardon, who was in the room taking careful notes, has explained to the author that Cui actually said, “Reclamation work is well within China’s sovereignty.” Cui described such work as mostly intended to provide services for vessels, but insisted that China cannot provide those services without self-defense capabilities. “So of course there will be military facilities” on the Spratlys, Cui concluded.

For years, China was indeed the only Spratly claimant save Brunei not to have an airstrip on the islands—Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all led in this regard. On Taiping Island (Itu Aba), Taiwan maintains the 1,200 m military-only Taiping Island Airport. The sole current use is bimonthly resupply and personnel transport via C-130 aircraft. It lacks refueling facilities, but may soon be lengthened to facilitate operations in rainy weather. Malaysia’sLayang-Layang Airport on heavily-reclaimed Swallow Reef (with a 1,367 m concrete runway) accommodates both civil and military aircraft. On Thitu Island (Pagasa), the Philippines has the unpaved 1300m Rancudo Airfield. Finally, on Truong Sa Island, Vietnam has a 610 m airstrip capable of accommodating a small fixed-wing propeller aircraft and a helipad.

China’s lack of a Spratly airfield for many years was arguably a form of restraint, which Chinese leaders believe was not reciprocated by other parties. Given its superior power and deployment of capabilities in so many other areas, however, Beijing’s sense of victimhood here seems overwrought. The author is reminded of a song from his earlier days as a camp counselor in rural Vermont:

Way down South where bananas grow

An ant stepped on an elephant’s toe

The elephant cried with tears in his eyes

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

In any case, by any measure China is now leaving all other SCS claimants far behind in island and facilities construction. Its limitations vis-à-vis its neighbors in all respects have now passed firmly into history.

Nevertheless, China is hardly the only nation to portray its capabilities and intentions in the best possible light—all do to some degree. That’s why it’s important to watch actual activities—in this case, particularly, airstrip construction. For airstrips, after structural integrity, it’s length that matters most. There’s no need for a 3,000 m runway to support evacuation of personnel for medical or weather emergencies via turboprop and other civilian aircraft. Such a runway is only need to support a full range of military options. Building a separate taxiway alongside, as China is doing at Fiery Cross, suggests plans for high tempo, high sortie rate military operations. Occasional activities of the type mistakenly attributed to Ambassador Cui do not require a taxiway; aircraft can simply backtrack on the runway.

It’s reasons like these that satellite photos documenting runway development continue to attract international attention, as well they should.

Why This All Matters, Greatly

Worries about Chinese construction in the SCS exemplify broader foreign concern about China’s rise: that as it becomes increasingly powerful, Beijing will:

-abandon previous restraint in word and deed

- bully its smaller neighbors

- implicitly or explicitly threaten the use of force to resolve disputes

- and attempt to change—or else run roughshod over—important international norms that preserve peace in Asia and underwrite the global system on which mutual prosperity depends

China has many options to allay such fears, but typically declines to use them. Official responses to reasonable questions are often self-righteous but opaque.

Prime example: On March 9, Spokeswoman Hua said this when asked about China’s construction on Spratly features—some of which were seized forcibly from Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and many of which remain disputed: “The relevant construction is a matter within the scope of China’s sovereignty, which is reasonable, justified and lawful. It does not affect or target any country, and is thus beyond reproach.” Hua cautioned against making “indiscreet remarks on China’s normal activities on its own territory.”

But, as journalist Frank Ching points out, in one of the many op-eds trumpeting China’s positions, Foreign Minister Wang Yi “did not explain why, when there is a dispute over territorial sovereignty, the world should always accept China’s claims as being beyond dispute while other countries are presumed to be acting illegally.” Ching rightly observers, “China refuses to accept mechanisms provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for judicial arbitration.”

Ching identifies a key problem with Beijing’s insistence on bilateral negotiation: “Mr Wang and the government that he represents insists that the only choice the small, weak, militarily insignificant countries of South-east Asia have is to hold one-on-one negotiations with China, whose military budget is the second biggest in the world and which has the world’s largest Coast Guard fleet, with more patrol vessels than Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia combined.” To this may be added that Beijing has the world’s second largest economy and 205 maritime law enforcement vessels to Jakarta’s 8, Manila’s 4, and Kuala Lumpur’s 2. 

And yet, as Ching emphasizes, it is Wang and his government that liken neighbors’ Spratly construction to “illegal construction in another person’s [China’s] house,” while calling on the international community to “reaffirm their commitment to maintaining world peace and international rule of law [and to] reject the law of the jungle where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.” These gaping contradictions must not pass unquestioned.