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China's Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea

December 8, 2014 Topic: South China SeaMilitary Strategy Region: China

China's Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea

China’s grand strategy in the South China Sea seems pretty clear—change facts in the water. 

The most consequential of these island-building projects is on Fiery Cross Reef. From a naturally submerged atoll, Fiery Cross Reef will soon be the largest island in the Spratlys. After the current land reclamation, with an expected land area of 2 square kilometers, it will be four times as large as the naturally largest island in the archipelago, the Itu Aba, which is held by Taiwan. This expanded area will enable Fiery Cross Reef to host a 3,000-meter long airfield, a deep-water seaport, radar stations, several medium- to long-range missiles and other storage and service infrastructure capable of supporting hundreds of fishing boats, patrol vessels, warships and aircrafts.

It would not be surprising if in the near-to-medium term Beijing would also build airstrips and deep-water harbors at Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal and set up an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.

With its enlarged and strategically located islands, China has more potential than any other major powers to gain air and naval supremacy in the South China Sea. Although Beijing still has a long way to go, it is not unimaginable to see in the next two decades a South China Sea dotted with powerful Chinese staging bases that stretch from the Paracel Islands in the northwest to Mischief Reef in the southeast, and from Scarborough Shoal in the northeast to Fiery Cross Reef in the southwest.

Is this creeping expansion unstoppable? Although the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” (DOC), signed by China and the ASEAN states in 2002, provides little ground for a blockade of the construction sites, states that want to maintain the status quo can still send international observers to verify the constructions and mount diplomatic pressure to persuade China to suspend the work.

Another way to challenge China’s weiqi strategy is to take a page from Beijing’s own playbook. For example, in a first step, Vietnam can offer the Indian military access to naval facilities in Cam Ranh Bay and the U.S. military access to air bases in Da Nang, two of Vietnam’s most strategic locations along the South China Sea coast. If China does not heed the message, this initial countermove can be redoubled with offers to the U.S. and Japanese militaries and coast guards of access to Cam Ranh and Da Nang, from which they can patrol the South China Sea. Ultimately, if China is still determined to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, a strong alliance between Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States, Japan and India is necessary to redress the imbalance of power.

China’s grand strategy in the South China Sea is a smart game plan that exploits the soft underbelly of strategies relying on large battles, two examples of which include both the Air-Sea Battle concept, the premier U.S. operational concept designed to negate China’s anti-access area-denial capabilities, and its major alternative, the Offshore Control concept. But this strategy of creeping expansion is far from perfect. It can be thwarted if the United States, Vietnam and some other regional powers play weiqi as skillfully as China.

Alexander L. Vuving is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. You Can Follow him on Twitter: @Alex_Vuving.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Israel Defense Forces/CC by-sa 3.0