The booming expansion of China’s military forces into the South China Sea will give Beijing de facto control of the area at the expense of Washington and Southeast Asian countries. Beijing’s level of assertiveness over the South China Sea remains one of the most problematic sources of instability for the region while the Chinese leadership is extremely determined not to make any concessions.
Although the Obama Administration has pledged to increase the level of American military presence under the auspices of its rebalance, China has been pursuing its ambitious brinkmanship policy since November 2015. Recently, China has confirmed the deployment of two batteries of HQ-9 air defence missiles and a radar station on Woody island, part of the Paracel chain of disputed island in the South China Sea.
This move is part of Beijing’s strategy, aiming to ensure the exclusive control of the area through the expansion of its strategic presence in the region. Last October, the Obama Administration authorized the U.S. Navy to take part in patrolling operations in the South China Sea, increasing the level of confrontation with Beijing which considers American intrusion over its indisputable sovereignty unacceptable.
In the last few years, China’s desire to expand its sovereignty in the South China Seas has created friction with a large number of Southeast Asian nations. China’s territorial claims cover 90% of the area despite the fact that the basis for their sovereignty rights date only to a draft of 1947 maritime borders. Nevertheless, for almost two decades China has de facto refrained from claiming the contested waters around the Spratly and the Paracel Islands.
(Source: UNCLOS and CIA)
Officially, China has no intention to militarise the South China Sea and has pledged that its presence will not affect freedom of navigation in the area as PLA General Fan Changlong, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, stressed during his remarks at the Sixth Xiangshan Forum in Beijing last October.
However, as discussed in the recent meeting between President Obama and President Xi in Washington, the never-ending issue of the Chinese military presence in the South China Sea remains one of the main sources of concern for Washington. Moreover, territorial tensions and incidents between China and Southeast Asian countries have considerably expanded due to the increasing presence of the PLA Navy in the area, a clear signal that the Chinese leadership is determined to defend its core strategic interest in the region.
(Source: Office of Naval Intelligence)
China’s naval power rises
The Chinese leadership considers the modernisation of its military infrastructure as an essential step in achieving great power status, based on the concept of Strategic Opportunity elaborated under President Xi. Additionally, as China’s global power grows, its transnational core interest expands. Consequently, Beijing’s investment in strategic capabilities including power projection, sea-lane security and anti-piracy has been progressively oriented towards the control of important areas such as the South China Sea, critical for the implementation of China’s operational reach in Southeast Asia.
However, Beijing’s ambitions over the South China Sea are the main source of concern for the Obama Administration, whose pledge to support the rule of law and freedom of navigation and overflight are the main pillar of the rebalance, launched in 2011. In a recent interview, the Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral S. Swift confirmed Washington’s determination to challenge China’s territorial claims, ensuring the respect of international law and sovereignty with regards to the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea, irrespective of Beijing’s objections.
Yet, Beijing’s strategic vision is based on the importance of restoring a supposed traditional sphere of interest of China in the South China Sea, the main pillar for the establishment of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine in the region. Indeed, the recent display of military strength in the spectacular parade, held for the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the PRC in the War of Resistance, provided an interesting venue for President Xi to stress China’s commitment to provide the utmost contribution in ensuring peace and stability in the region, but also in shaping the pillars of a wider level of cooperation and equality among the nations.
However, many analysts remain critical over Beijing’s willingness to be fully integrated in the regional system rather than pursue its own revisionist ambitions.
Chinese strategy over the South China Sea
Despite Chinese rhetorical messages, Beijing has increasingly expanded its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region as showed its attempt to gain control of strategic areas, vital to pursuing a more assertive strategy in the region as highlighted by the unilateral establishment of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013.
Moreover, China is currently expanding its maritime outposts located on the artificial atolls close to the Fiery Cross Reef near the Spratly Islands, an area partially claimed by Beijing. According to recent reports, the island has an airstrip long enough to allow the deployment of military aircraft.
Yet, Beijing has massively invested for the upgrading of military infrastructure such as radars, satellite communications, anti-aircraft defence systems and unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities. Washington’s concern is that Beijing could use these islands as a strategic base for launching anti-access/area denial operations, stationing military ships such as the small, but effective types 056 Corvette or 054 Frigates in order to expand its power projection for amphibious operations over nearby countries in case of a direct confrontation.
(Source: Fiery Cross Reef, South China Sea IHS Jane’s)
It is undisputed that Beijing has the power to declare at a certain point an ADIZ in the South China Sea in response to a direct threat to its strategic interest in the region as stressed by PLA Admiral, Sun Jiangua during last May’s Shangri-La Conference which took place in Singapore. However, given its unchallenged naval power, Beijing has no direct incentive to announce an ADIZ over an area that it de facto already controls.
However, imposing an ADIZ at this point would represent mainly an attempt to test Washington’s ability to support regional allies in the face of Beijing’s anti-access initiatives. This decision would be rather costly for Beijing in terms of compromising its image with Southeast Asian countries and stabilising the relations Washington, especially after the efforts conducted by Beijing for the promotion of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road throughout the region.
US-China: same bed different dreams
China’s commitment to building a new type of Major Power Relations seems to be oriented to playing a central role in shaping new rules and institutions based on the acknowledgment of China’s regional status and power and ensuring a wider level of cooperation with regional actors. However, Beijing still sees the United States as the main regional power with the greatest potential to support or to disrupt China’s rise. Under President Xi’s leadership, China’s aspiration to gain the status of global power seems to echo John Mearsheimer’s prediction.
China’s new foreign policy doctrine under Xi has been characterized by more assertiveness and displays of military strength rather than equality, harmony and mutual respect. As a result, Beijing has clearly manifested its confrontational behavior based on the renewed rhetoric of the Chinese national leadership in the regional and global scenario. Although Obama and Xi have both pledged their commitment in resolving critical issues, including the South China Sea, the chance of establishing a viable framework to build positive relations seems to be again stalled.
Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.