The China Challenge: Island-building — a military threat in the South China Sea

New details surfaced last week outlining Chinese military activities in the South China Sea where construction on several thousand acres of disputed islands is now the center of Beijing’s bid to gain control the strategic waterway.

Despite appeals from US leaders to halt the island construction and militarization on them, the build up of military facilities by China in the South China Sea is continuing.

An areal photo of China's ongoing reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea

An areal photo of China’s ongoing reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea

And the volume level of US and Chinese military posturing on the matter is increasing. China’s creeping hegemony in the Sea is expected to be a key topic of talks between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Washington on Friday.

“The South China Sea, as the name indicated, is a sea area. It belongs to China,” declared PLAN Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai at a conference in London last week.

“The South China Sea is no more China’s than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s,” Adm. Harry Harris, Jr., commander of the US Pacific Command said days later.

During testimony before the US Senate, Harris, who described himself as “very critical” of Chinese behavior over the past two years, warned that peace and stability in the Asia Pacific are “at risk” by China’s military buildup and maritime encroachment.

China launched its strategy to control the important waters several years ago and has gradually expanded the activities. An estimated $5.3 trillion worth of goods transit through the waters each year. It is also is said to contain large undersea energy reserves while serving as a major international fishing zone.

The attempted Beijing takeover of the South China Sea has followed a low-profile, step-by-step approach that gradually asserted Chinese authority over scores of disputed reefs and islets at two main locations: the Paracels in the north and the Spratlys in the south. The Chinese during recent years were careful to only use vessels from their six paramilitary maritime law enforcement services in challenging non-Chinese vessels, while keeping PLA naval forces mostly out of the public eye.

The islands are claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

The operation against the South China Sea began in earnest in the 2000s when China stepped up asserting authority through the vaguely-defined Nine-Dash Line first outlined by the predecessor Kuomintang government in 1947. The line covers some 1.4 million square miles of sea, about 90 percent of the sea.

By June 2012 Beijing had set up a new administrative center called Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels, 186 miles southeast of Hainan Island. The island has a military garrison and was given authority over 1.2 million square miles of the sea, including all the disputed islands.

PLA Navy and Maritime Law Enforcement forces around 2013 were observed increasing combat readiness operations and naval training in the South China Sea. And a new national island surveillance and monitoring system was announced in April 2013, including airborne remote-sensing over 4,406 islands.

On Jan. 1, 2014, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced it had begun requiring all foreign fishing boats vessels to first obtain approval before entering the sea covered by most of the Nine-Dash Line. The zone includes the disputed islands, in the Paracels and Sprtalys, along with Macclesfield Bank, and Scarborough Reef in the northeast.

The island building has been underway for years and was largely ignored by the Obama administration until tensions among the regional states, mainly Vietnam and Philippines, increased several years ago.

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., US Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, as the prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. CLIFF OWEN — AP Photo

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., US Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, as the prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. CLIFF OWEN — AP Photo

Harris, in his Senate Armed Services Committee testimony Sept. 17, disclosed that the Chinese are building 10,000-foot runways on three new islands, including Fiery Cross Reef. The runway construction  “gives me great concern militarily.”

The island-building and now runway construction and militarization have been captured by commercial satellite images published over the past several months. Two other runways are being built on the Spratlys’ Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

“And they’re also building deep water port facilities there which could put their deep water ships there, their combatant ships there, which gives them an extra capability,” he said.

“And if you look at all the facilities then you can imagine a network of missile sites, runways for their fifth-generation fighters and surveillance sites and all of that,” Harris said. “It creates a mechanism by which China would have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario short of war.”

Shear, the assistant defense secretary, also voiced his concerns about the military buildup on the islands. “The Chinese have not yet placed advanced weaponry on those features and we are going to do everything we can to ensure that they don’t,” he said.

Harris was quick to note that the Chinese military bases in the sea are “easy targets in war.”

“But short of that, the militarization of these features pose a threat against all other countries in the region,” he said.

Shear earlier testified that China could deploy both offensive and defensive systems on the islands, including long-range radars, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

Deep water ports will permit an expansion of law enforcement and naval ships further south into the Sea and airstrips will provide military aircraft to make diversion stops for carrier-based aircraft that will permit sustained air operations.

“Higher end military upgrades, such as permanent basing of combat aviation regiments or placement of  surface-to-air, anti-ship, and ballistic missile systems on reclaimed features, would rapidly militarize these disputed features in the South China Sea,” Shear told Congress in May.

China’s dredging operations increased dramatically over past two years to the point that construction is nearly complete. Beijing has announced the islands will be used for military purposes.

The use of maritime law enforcement vessels throughout the sea in recent years was clearly designed by China’s leader to mask their longer-term goal of building military bases that will cement control in a vital zone of commerce.

US calls to halt both the island building and their militarization have been ignored by China. Worse, China in August announced it has stopped island construction, an assertion that has proved false by Senate testimony.

Bill GertzBill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)



Categories: AT Top Writers, Bill Gertz, China, The China Challenge

Tags: , , , , ,