China’s Strategic Strait in the South China Sea
In a highly provocative move, China has deployed anti‑ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), as well as surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, to three disputed territories—Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef—in the South China Sea.
The deployment extends China’s military capability within the South China Sea and can be seen as another challenge to the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Chinese actions also make a mockery of Xi Jinping’s promises not to militarise the South China Sea, and reinforce doubts about Chinese declarations that it doesn’t seek to become a hegemonic power.
The deployed ASCM system is the YJ‑12B, one of China’s most advanced anti-ship missile systems. With a 545‑kilometre range, it flies at Mach 3 and can manoeuvre to evade anti‑ship missile defence systems. Its range and speed combination makes it very difficult to intercept and deadly to modern naval surface combatants. It’s this type of ASCM that has driven U.S. development of cooperative engagement capability (CEC), alongside allies including Australia.
CEC was most recently tested on HMAS Hobart and NuShip Brisbane. CEC combines data from sensors on several vessels to create a common operating picture that allows Navy surface combatants to more effectively counter such high-speed, long-range missiles. It also forms an integral part of the broader U.S. Navy concept of Navy Integrated Fire Control—Counter Air (NIFC-CA), with Australia emulating this concept by integrating the E‑7 Wedgetail and the AIR 6500 Integrated Air and Missile Defence into the mix.
China’s deployment of such missiles, together with its long-range HQ‑9B SAMs, to South China Sea bases enhances its ability to defend these bases. The HQ‑9B is considered roughly equivalent to the Russian SA‑20 SAM, and is a highly effective air defence system, including against cruise missiles.
Together, these systems extend China’s anti‑access and area denial bubble deep into the South China Sea, giving China overlapping coverage of the Spratly Islands with the YJ‑12B ASCMs, and broad coverage over the Spratlys with its long-range SAMs.
The latest missile deployments don’t mark the end of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. One possible future development could include steps to establish military facilities on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China’s coast guard already controls the seas around the shoal, and China has asserted the right to establish an ‘environmental monitoring station’ on it.
Any future militarisation of the shoal, similar to what has occurred on Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, would increase China’s ability to isolate Taiwan with a distant blockade without placing its naval surface combatants at risk close to Taiwanese territory. It would also place Chinese military forces a mere 350 kilometres from Manila.
For the moment, China appears in no hurry to extend its reach to the Philippines-owned Scarborough Shoal. President Rodrigo Duterte is playing a useful role for Beijing by accepting Chinese control of the fishing grounds around the shoal and arguing that China’s missile deployments ‘protect the Philippines’.
Duterte seems ready to accept Chinese claims in return for Chinese economic investment. However, Duterte’s term of office is up in 2022, and China could act more aggressively if his successor is not so compliant.
Secondly, it’s likely that China will deploy air combat capabilities onto established bases. China has already begun deployments of H‑6K bombers into the Paracels. Flying such aircraft from bases in the Spratlys would bring northern Australia into missile range. If accompanied by deployment of fighters into these bases, China could enforce any declaration of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over part or all of the South China Sea, and ensure local air superiority over the entirety of the sea.
At the strategic level, China’s creeping militarisation of the South China Sea gives it greater ability to control this vital waterway, potentially transforming it into what Richard Bitzinger refers to as a strategic strait that it would seek to control. This is occurring as Chinese academics are now promoting the idea of replacing the nine-dash line with a continuous boundary as part of a new ‘Four Sha’ doctrine.
That doctrine is changing how China views territorial disputes, moving from treating disputed islands as individual claims to regarding them as an integrated archipelagic body, with continuous baselines and their own exclusive economic zones. That would represent a new ambit claim that further contradicts the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. A continuous boundary would expand China’s territorial claims effectively over the entirety of the South China Sea.
In a military context, the most recent missile deployments make it riskier for the U.S. Navy to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). Australia doesn’t do FONOPs, but does exercise its freedom of navigation rights via Operation Gateway, both in the air with RAAF P‑8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and on the high seas with naval deployments.
China’s missile deployments increase the potential that any future incident—whether it be with the U.S. or its allies, including Australia—could turn into a serious military clash. China specialist Andrew Erickson highlighted these concerns in Congressional testimony in 2015:
China is poised to ‘outstick’ the U.S. Navy by 2020 by deploying greater quantities of missiles with greater ranges than those of the U.S. ship‑based systems able to defend against them.
Even with the deployment of these missiles, there’s no suggestion that the U.S. would cease exercising its right under international law to maintain freedom of navigation of the seas, and of the airspace above it. Yet China’s forward deployment of missile forces into the Spratly Islands does make such operations riskier, and increases the chance of escalation and tension.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll consider the likely U.S. and allied military responses to China’ actions, and how Chinese control of the South China Sea directly affects Australia’s security.