South China Sea Strategies

Determining China’s next move in the region

DR. Alexander L. Vuving

Since 2014, the Spratly Islands have remained a large and unique construction site. Workers aboard dozens of Chinese vessels have been cutting coral and dredging sand to turn previously submerged reefs into artificial islands. In less than a year, they created more than 10 square kilometers of new land on seven sites across an archipelago whose total land area had originally been approximately 4 square kilometers. Fiery Cross Reef, which was submerged at high tide when occupied by China in 1988, now boasts a land mass of 2.74 square kilometers and is large enough to host a 3,100-meter-long airstrip and a 63-hectare harbor. Nearly six times larger than Itu Aba, the largest natural island in the Spratly group, Fiery Cross Reef is still smaller than two other artificial islands. By June 2015, China had created 4 square kilometers and 5.6 square kilometers at Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, respectively, and these numbers were still growing at publication time, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website http://amti.csis.org/island-tracker.

What is the endgame of this island building? The roles of China’s man-made islands in wartime and in maritime law seem extremely doubtful. Too small and isolated to sustain major attacks, these assets can easily become liabilities in times of war. Being completely artificial, they are not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea or 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Why is China investing a huge amount of resources to create these artificial islands?

Chinese dredging vessels are seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft.
Chinese dredging vessels are seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft.

The conventional perspectives that focus on military and legal implications of these activities are ill-suited to answer the questions. China is pursuing a strategy that is based upon principles very different from the conventional thinking, as outlined in the author’s comments in a March 2015 article on the IR.Asia website. The philosophy behind this strategy can be found in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The key idea is “winning without fighting.” The overall objective is to gain control of the South China Sea, but the main way to achieve this is not through large battles. Rather, China wants to achieve its objective through activities that create new facts on the ground (and the water), set up the playing field and psychologically change the strategic calculus of other nations. The underlying logic of this strategy is to shift the propensity of things in favor of Chinese dominance by maneuvering the strategic configurations of the region.

Three imperatives are required to pursue this strategy of opportunistic and gray-zone expansion, and Beijing’s six-decadelong involvement in the South China Sea has neatly followed these requirements. (Author Alexander L. Vuving first published this theory in December 2014 in “China’s Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea,” in The National Interest magazine. The article correctly predicted China’s building programs at Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.)

Three Imperatives

The first imperative is to avoid large battles as much as possible; clashes can be initiated, but only to exploit an existing favorable situation. This imperative served as the mainstay of China’s approach when it seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974 and when it clashed with Vietnam in the Spratly Islands in 1988.

The second imperative is to control the most strategic positions in the area; if not already in possession, these positions must be seized stealthily if possible and in a limited conflict if necessary. This imperative was most visible when China took control of the seven reefs it now occupies in the Spratly Islands and of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

The third imperative is to develop these positions into strong points of control, robust hubs of logistics and effective bases of power projection. This is precisely what China is now doing in the South China Sea.

These activities are to serve the dual goal of establishing Chinese supremacy and sovereignty in this domain. Due to their strategic locations and their logistic support, the islands in China’s hands will be robust platforms from which a myriad of fishing boats, law enforcement vessels, warships and aircraft, manned or unmanned, can dominate the waters and the skies of the South China Sea.

The key points of control include Woody Island in the Paracel Islands; Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands; and Scarborough Shoal in the northeastern part of the South China Sea. Woody Island, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal form a four-point constellation from which, with a radius of only 250 nautical miles, the entire main body of the South China Sea can be kept under intense watch. Within the Spratly group, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef make a perfect triangle to cover the archipelago.

iAPDF_V41N3_ENG_MapOn Woody Island, China has recently installed anti-aircraft missiles and upgraded a 3,000-meter-long airstrip and a 1,000-meter deep-water port. The airfield is capable of handling eight or more fourth-generation aircraft such as Su-30MKK fighters and JH-7 bombers, while the harbor can accommodate vessels of 5,000 tons or more. An airstrip and a harbor of similar sizes are under construction at Fiery Cross Reef. The land creation at Subi Reef and Mischief Reef suggests that each of the two artificial islands will also have an airstrip and a harbor of these sizes. Although Beijing had not started large-scale construction at Scarborough Shoal as of early spring 2016, it would not be surprising if it will also build an airstrip and a deep-water port at this site in the future.

The expanded areas gained through land creation will enable China to install significant military and dual-use facilities on its outposts. The four smaller Chinese outposts in the Spratly Islands now are about the size of the largest Vietnamese outpost there. Spratly Island, the largest feature occupied by Vietnam in the archipelago, covers 15 hectares. The four Chinese outposts, Cuarteron Reef, Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef and Hughes Reef, now measure 23.1 hectares, 10.9 hectares, 13.6 hectares and 7.6 hectares, respectively.

China will put radar stations, power and water plants of various sizes, and other storage and service infrastructure on the islands it occupies. Its facilities in the Paracel and Spratly islands will be capable of supporting thousands of fishing boats and hundreds of patrol vessels, warships and aircraft to operate in the waters and skies located hundreds of kilometers from the Chinese coasts. China will also populate these islands with thousands of civilians and military personnel. With several enlarged islands in the Paracels and seven artificial islands in the Spratlys as staging and resupply bases, China can deploy tens of thousands of fishing boats and hundreds of law enforcement vessels to push the Vietnamese, Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians out of the waters Beijing considers its own.

De Facto Control

China may not attack the features already occupied by other claimants, but it will increase efforts to surreptitiously take control of some strategically located but unoccupied features. Eldad Reef and Whitsun Reef in the central groups, as well as several features in the eastern part of the Spratly Islands closer to the Philippines, continue to be the targets of these efforts.

China may not formally declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea since such an act may trigger a major crisis and turn many of the Southeast Asian nations against China. But Beijing will impose several air defense zones in the areas surrounding the Paracel and Spratly islands. It will also quietly assert that the sky within the U-shaped line belongs to it.

With substantially more facilities in the Paracel and Spratly islands, China will occasionally declare several security, fishing and environmental zones in the South China Sea. Although these maritime zones may not be in accordance with international law, China will refuse to go to the court, and as the most powerful actor in the region, Beijing can enforce whatever it regards as lawful.

Can China achieve air and naval superiority in the South China Sea? As previously mentioned, the airfields and harbors in the Paracel and Spratly islands are too isolated and too exposed to sustain major attacks in wartime. China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is no match for even a single aircraft carrier of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. While the Liaoning will be equipped with 30 J-15 multirole fighters and multiple antisubmarine warfare helicopters, a Nimitz-class U.S. carrier has twice that capacity.

Beijing’s goal appears to be air and sea superiority in times when the United States is not militarily involved. Vietnam’s ability to attack Chinese outposts in the South China Sea is heavily limited by the possibility of China’s retaliation along the countries’ 1,450-kilometer land border. Four airfields at the Paracel and Spratly islands will be able to add 30 to 40 more to the number of fourth-generation aircraft that China can operate at the same time in the South China Sea. This will enable China to gain air superiority over Vietnam and Malaysia, the largest air forces among its Southeast Asian rivals. Vietnam enjoys a long coastline on the South China Sea but has only 35 fourth-generation aircraft for the entire country. Malaysia lies far to the south and has no more than 44 fourth-generation aircraft for the entire country.

Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy patrol in the Spratly Islands in February 2016. [REUTERS]
Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy patrol in the Spratly Islands in February 2016. [REUTERS]
In addition to aircraft and warships, China may also deploy more missiles to the sites it occupies in the Paracel and Spratly islands. The deployment of more missiles will likely trigger vehement protests by Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States and some other governments, but China will justify its deployment as an act of self-defense. China’s military assets there will be highly vulnerable in wartime, but their main functions appear to be peacetime patrolling and psychological intimidation.

A Coercive Blend

China’s approach mixes coercive elements with cooperative ones, using the latter to lure and trap others in the former. China may offer its facilities on the artificial islands as a global public good. In May 2015, Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the Chinese Navy, told Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of U.S. naval operations, that the facilities on China’s artificial islands might be used for joint rescue and disaster-relief operations. Although the United States did not buy China’s pitch, China will certainly use its disputed assets as staging bases for high-profile humanitarian or cooperative operations that involve other states in the region. For countries with no territorial or maritime disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, this will be another incentive for acquiescence in Chinese domination.

It is unlikely that China will disrupt the commercial air and sea traffic in the region, but it will be no surprise if China occasionally tries to intercept some vessels and aircraft, military or civilian, of countries that oppose its bid for regional hegemony. The main effects of such acts are designed to be psychological rather than physical.

China’s activities in the South China Sea fit into a larger and long-term strategy whose central tenet is to gain control of this strategically pivotal location in ways that would prevent others from responding in kind. This strategy in turn is part of a larger effort to realize the China Dream, to restore what China perceives as its rightful place at the top of a hierarchy of nations. The fate of belligerent rising powers in the past and the vulnerability of China’s trading routes suggest that war is not the way for China to achieve this ambition. Equipped with a strategic tradition that favors indirect approaches, China has opted for a strategy of opportunistic and gray-zone expansion that tries to shape the playing field rather than directly attack the enemy. Intimidation is a major element of this strategy, but it is to result from an overwhelming configuration or selective overpunishment rather than indiscriminate assaults.

If China’s rivals are unable to counter this strategy, China will emerge, at least in the perception of most regional countries, as the overlord of the South China Sea. Given the fact that the lifeline of Asia’s economy runs through the South China Sea, and the fact that the center of world economic gravitation has shifted to Asia, preserving free access for all to the South China Sea is increasingly important.

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