China's Dangerous South China Sea Challenge

China's Dangerous South China Sea Challenge
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Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a series of satellite images, released by IHS Jane’s, showing Chinese island construction in the South China Sea. On the same day, February 18, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released a number of similar photos with updates on the construction. This issue has been in the news since at least last summer, when the Philippines released aerial photos of construction on Johnson South Reef, but perhaps the starkness of last week’s before-and-after images is drawing the attention that previous reporting did not.

As others have noted, the main story here is that China is changing facts on the (newly created) ground in the South China Sea—perhaps to obscure the nature of previously existing features in order to complicate international arbitration, to establish visible and permanent control of disputed features and to enable the easier defense (or perhaps snatching) of reefs and islets in the sea.

For Beijing, enforcing its claims to territory in the South China Sea is important for securing access to coveted resources and for demonstrating to the Chinese populace that the Communist Party is able to defend and maintain the unity of China. But there is a military-strategic logic to China’s island-building as well.

First, China’s coastal regions are its richest—Guangdong, in southern China, is the country’s largest province by GDP and home to the busy Port of Guangzhou—but China has very little strategic depth beyond its coasts: hemmed in by American allies to the east and facing waters along all coasts long dominated by the US Navy. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) investments in a blue-water navy and missile forces are, in effect, efforts to provide the country with the strategic depth that geography failed to grant it. Long gone are the days when Mao’s Red Army could sacrifice space on the mainland for time.

Now, in building and fortifying islands in the Spratlys, Beijing can better position Chinese naval and air assets to blunt enemy forces approaching Chinese shores from the south and west. Moreover, an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, which appears to be in the cards, would cut the distance from Hainan Island to the Malacca Strait by about a third, potentially easing China’s ability to forcefully resist the imposition of a distant blockade or enabling China to itself threaten the strategic waterway.

Chinese motives for militarizing the Spratlys, however, may not be purely defensive. Airstrips, helipads, gun emplacements, supply stores, ship berths—when built some 700 miles from the Chinese coastline, these are enablers of power projection. For the first time, historical foe Vietnam may have to worry about a permanent Chinese military presence off its southeastern coast. Manila is even more concerned, as the Chinese land reclamation projects are practically on the Philippines’ doorstep. The new islands also place Chinese forces nearer to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which China may claim depending on how one connects its nine-dashed line. 

Put simply, the creation of new islands in the South China Sea playing host to Chinese military forces will create new challenges for military planners in the sea’s littoral states as well as, potentially, in India, Australia, and the United States.

They will also present new challenges for Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which depend for their livelihood on the free and secure transit of goods and commodities through the South China Sea. China has long worried about being blockaded, but it is now putting itself in a better position to harass the sea lines on which others rely. An actual distant blockade will remain a bridge too far for the PLA, but it may be able to force freighters bound for or coming from those U.S. partners to adopt lengthier routes, thus imposing economic costs on Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul.

China’s ultimate plans for the islands remain unclear, but there is little good that can come of the reclamation projects for the United States or for China’s neighbors. A truly peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes has now become much more difficult. China is enhancing its ability to project power against weaker neighbors and into vital sea lines of communication on which the global economy depends. Finally, China may have improved its ability to defend the mainland—and while a more secure China is not necessarily bad for regional stability, the assertiveness that such security can breed almost certainly is.

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