Confronting China’s 'New' Military Challenge in the South China Sea
The US aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the South China Sea.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Confronting China’s 'New' Military Challenge in the South China Sea


Earlier this week, China announced that it had completed some of its land reclamation activities on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. As I have written previously, what these announcements really mean is that as we suspected, Beijing is shifting the focus from building new illegal islands to its already ongoing construction of military facilities on them (See: “The Truth About China’s South China Sea Land Reclamation Announcement”). Needless to say, these provocative acts risk further damaging regional peace and stability and undermining U.S. interests. As the emphasis moves to this dimension of China’s challenge in the South China Sea it is worth thinking about what this means and how Washington and other actors can begin to confront it.

The first step is to be clear about what China is doing and what this means for other claimant states, the United States and other interested actors. On the first point, the latest public satellite imagery confirms what some have long known – Beijing is building military facilities on several features, some of which can be used for offensive purposes against other claimants and states (See: “How Close is China to Another South China Sea Airstrip?”). These include an airstrip, troop garrisons, anti-air and anti-surface guns and radar and communications equipment. These facilities will boost China’s ability to patrol surrounding waters and monitor the activities of their claimants, thereby making it easier for Beijing to assert its own (extensive) claims and blunt other claimants’ efforts to challenge it from doing so.

China’s militarization of these islands is destabilizing and violates its own commitments to its neighbors. Most notably, it clearly goes against the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Parties (DoC) it signed with ASEAN, which calls for self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate and escalate disputes and affect peace and stability. While other claimants have some facilities they built in the past as well, China’s will dwarf them considerably. Besides, to be clear, the vast asymmetry in capabilities between China and the other claimants, combined with Beijing’s proven willingness to exploit them through destabilizing actions in the South China Sea – be it seizing Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014, and encroaching into waters in the southern end of its illegal nine-dash line reaching Malaysia and Indonesia – makes any comparison with other claimants rather suspect (See: “Malaysia Responds to China’s South China Sea Intrusion”).

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China’s actions are also a direct threat to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. The United States desires a free, peaceful and stable region, which it has successfully underwritten with an order it built and preserved since the end of WWII. After benefiting from this order for the past few decades to build up its capabilities, Beijing is now threatening it by violating international rules and norms and disrupting peace and stability. Aside from what it suggests about China’s own behavior, Beijing’s construction of military facilities in the South China Sea could also prompt other claimants to build up their capabilities as well, thereby militarizing the area through a classic security dilemma. That is not the Asia that Washington or even most of its regional allies, partners and friends desire.

If the first step is to understand this new challenge, the second step is to confront it. The objective here should not only be to stop, slow or complicate China’s military construction in the South China Sea, but to prevent destabilizing actions by Beijing which these new facilities could further and to manage a security dilemma that could militarize the area. This requires a range of actions – from shaming China by disclosing information about its activities ahead of time to preempt them to redressing the military imbalance in the South China Sea in Beijing’s favor by working with willing claimants and others on capacity-building initiatives. U.S. officials have already been moving on some of these measures, but they need to be sped up as the facts on the water are changing far quicker than was expected even a year ago.

At the same time, the United States and other actors must view this new challenge as only the latest step in China’s broader strategy of incremental assertiveness in the South China Sea. For instance, China’s shift from reclamation to construction should not take the focus away from the illegality of its artificial islands in the South China Sea. China’s island-building activities clearly violate UNCLOS, and the international community must continue to emphasize this, whether through diplomatic statements, legal actions, or U.S. freedom of navigation operations close to Chinese features (See: “How Would the US Challenge China in the South China Sea?”). Similarly, focusing on the specifics of new military facilities should not detract from planned responses to potential Chinese next steps, including the potential declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Keeping the big picture in mind is important so that one does not just react to China’s actions, but anticipates and preempts them to put Beijing on the back foot.

Lastly, it is important to emphasize that for all the focus on the South China Sea, all parties do not view it as an isolated issue but part of a broader challenge of dealing with a rising China in a changing Asia-Pacific. That means Washington and other interested actors need to think carefully about how to sequence, calibrate and balance various actions on the South China Sea issue and deal with China more generally. For the United States, the challenge here will be to keep the U.S.-China relationship stable and work with Beijing while it can but also not being afraid to confront China when its conduct undermines regional stability. Even if the Obama administration appears to have gotten closer to finding that balance of late, realities could change as we move into the 2016 elections and then into a new administration.

But this is not solely a U.S.-China issue. As China’s military facilities allow it to move further and more frequently into the southern reaches of its nine-dash line, Malaysia – a South China Sea claimant – as well as other interested parties like Indonesia may need to further adjust their capabilities and relationships with Beijing and other states to account for this new reality (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”). While greater cooperation between ASEAN claimants is a start – notwithstanding the limits of this thus far – other measures involving non-claimants may become necessary as well. ASEAN as a bloc needs to do its part as well. For all the criticism leveled at the grouping, its centrality undergirds regional order and some of its work – such as the DoC – offer important reference points to push for a relatively more united position on the issue.

More generally, Southeast Asian nations need to ask themselves what China’s behavior, including its actions in the South China Sea, say about it as a rising power and chart an appropriate response. As I have repeatedly pointed out, Beijing is clearly employing a two-pronged strategy towards Southeast Asia which seeks to cement economic ties with states to draw them closer to China’s orbit while at the same time advancing its military capabilities to realize its interests – by force if necessary. The assumption of the two-part strategy of incremental assertiveness is that with time (read to be on China’s side), an even stronger China will have both changed the status quo to be much more in its favor as well as drastically reduced the leverage of ASEAN states to do anything about it. Like in the South China Sea, China usually employs this strategy of “incremental assertiveness” through alternating cycles of fear and charm, hoping to consolidate gains over time while minimizing damage to its regional relationships (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Approach in 2015?”). What is not clear is whether Southeast Asia has an adequate, timely response to this. So far, Chinese policymakers do not appear to be convinced that their strategy is failing. Until they do, they are unlikely to fix something that seems unbroken.

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