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.
China’s steady increase in assertiveness, implemented by civilian assets backstopped by an increasingly capable set of military tools, clearly aims to establish unrivaled dominance over these disputed waters, as well as land territories. The stakes are high. These waters contain some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, carrying some $5.3 trillion in goods annually.
Sadly, the United States has been neglecting this festering problem. This summer, hard questioning revealed that the U.S. had not conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) around China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys in three years—even as the United States invited the Chinese to participate in the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises. China’s recent actions have drawn no direct U.S. response other than chiding from Secretary of State John Kerry, who expressed the expectation of “very serious” discussions. Washington appears to be focused on “de-escalating,” which appears to be a polite term for appeasement.
Signaling the World
But China’s leaders do not appear interested in de-escalation. Indeed, the deployment of advanced SAMs is anything but tension-reducing, and Beijing certainly knows it. The deployment is instead likely intended to send three key messages. The most obvious is the one to Vietnam: Beijing has no intention of returning the islands. As the previous owner of the Paracels (along with Taiwan), Vietnam has long indicated that it will not relinquish its claim on the islands.
In recent years, the Vietnamese have acquired over thirty SU-30MKK fighters (comparable to the SU-30s and some J-11 variants in the Chinese air force), several Molniya-class missile corvettes (each equipped with sixteen anti-ship KH-35 missiles comparable to the American Harpoon), and a half-dozen Kilo-class submarines. Increasing Chinese capability in the Paracels is clearly intended to deter Vietnamese action.
The second message is a signal to Washington: The days of unfettered U.S. access to the region are numbered. One or two advanced SAM batteries in the Paracels will not alter the strategic environment. But that could change, once the airstrips in the Spratlys are completed, and it would shift even more if new facilities go up on Mischief Reef and Macclesfield Bank.
If the Chinese create an integrated air defense network—incorporating multiple advanced SAM batteries (perhaps including the newly acquired S-400 SAMs from Russia) with overlapping coverage, advanced fighters at multiple air bases scattered throughout the area and seaborne air defenses such as those aboard their new Type 052D destroyers, all tied together by airborne early warning aircraft and land-based radars—countering it becomes a very complicated task. It would no longer be a matter of a few pinpoint strikes, but would rather entail full-blown conflict. American efforts to assert freedom of navigation while operating within such an air defense (and likely anti-ship) environment would clearly occur at Chinese sufferance.
Finally, in the wake of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) victory in Taiwan and with the impending arbitration court ruling later this summer, Beijing’s move is also intended as a signal about Chinese intentions for the near future. Since the Chinese “Nine Dash Line” derives from Nationalist documents and policies, in theory, Taiwan, which maintains itself as the Republic of China, could undermine the Chinese position by redefining the meaning of the “Nine Dash Line.” Moreover, many observers expect China to lose the pending arbitration case brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) . The deepening Chinese militarization of the islands suggest that Beijing intends to keep these islands firmly under its control, no matter what Taiwan or the Hague might say.
What the United States Should Do
In this deteriorating situation, the United States must exhibit leadership. To encourage local states to make clear to Beijing that its aggrandizing approach is counterproductive, a more consistent, robust set of American responses is essential.
1) Deploy American Coast Guard cutters to the western Pacific
It is clear that China has successfully managed public perceptions of the situation, placing its opponents in a bind by relying on coast guard vessels to assert its rights, thereby claiming that China is not militarizing the situation. Washington cannot afford to cede the public-opinion battleground. The white hulls of the U.S. Coast Guard can and should play a central role. Homeporting one or two U.S. Coast Guard cutters in, for example, Sasebo, Japan or alongside the Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore would allow the U.S. to regularly engage local states through joint civilian law enforcement activities, while also allowing the conduct of FONOPs through U.S. government (but non-military) vessels.