Reports have emerged that China installed a new rocket weapon system to counter combat divers on a disputed island in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. Some have framed the deployment as additional evidence that China is militarizing its reclaimed bases in the Spratlys, despite a 2015 pledge not to. However, the rockets are not militarily significant, and may not actually be new. But what the case demonstrates is how the lack of agreement as to what constitutes militarization there weakens U.S. arguments against China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Reuters reported that a Chinese state-controlled defense media outlet highlighted the deployment of a CS/AR-1 rocket system on Fiery Cross Reef to counter Vietnamese combat divers. The article linked the system to persistent U.S. complaints about China’s militarization of the Spratly Islands, and was referenced by others as the latest example of China’s recalcitrant South China Sea policies.
Ely Ratner, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for China Studies and former deputy national security advisor to vice president Joseph Biden tweeted that the move was evidence of China taking advantage of the Trump administration’s efforts to accommodate it. The report was also cited in a Foreign Affairs article as further evidence that China would continue to militarize the Spratly Islands without international pressure and the willingness of the United States to take a stand against the activity. But the CS/AR-1’s meager capabilities contrast poorly with the scope of the policy arguments it is cited as evidence for, and since neither rely on the existence of the rockets to make their cases, the arguments are stronger without them.
In 2014, IHS Janes reported on the CS/AR-1’s introduction. It is a highly-specialized system designed to launch 55 millimeter grenades up to 500 meters into the water. The grenades’ concussion is intended to kill, incapacitate, or disorient combat divers who may be conducting reconnaissance or sabotage underwater, or coming ashore to do the same.
But in the context of “militarization,” the system’s short range and the small size of its ordnance means that it poses no threat to ships or aircraft. Its presence is also not new, as Janes cited reports that a similar system, the Russian DP-65 anti-swimmer rocket, had been in place on Fiery Cross Reef since at least 2012, before both the 2015 militarization pledge and China’s extensive reclamation and expansion of the island.
The divergent discussion of the CS/AR-1 system and what it means is emblematic of the problems caused by how the United States and China each define militarization (or fail to). When Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged not to militarize the Spratly Islands in 2015, the two countries did not hammer out a common definition of the term. Since then, U.S. officials and analysts have decried China’s construction of bases, runways, and defensive installations there as a violation of that promise. But as I’ve written previously, China’s official statements on its construction in the Spratlys have consistently differentiated between “militarization” and “defense” facilities or purposes. In other words, while President Xi did not make the distinction at the time, China seems to have an explicitly offensive conception of what “militarization” in the island chain means.
By contrast, there is no similarly clear American conception of the term, making it easier for China to brush off U.S. government complaints. Western analysts and military officials, including the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, generally consider China’s South China Sea bases, which include runways, hardened hangars for military aircraft, advanced long-range sensor systems, and some short-range weapons systems, as evidence that China has militarized the Spratly Islands. That suggests a reasonable definition of militarization, but it is an unarticulated one, and despite that extensive construction, none of China’s Spratly bases have long-range offensive weapons systems installed on them.
Since none of the construction to-date can project force on its own, Chinese officials plausibly reject U.S accusations of militarization using their own strictly offensive conception of the term. China further counters these accusations by claiming that it is the United States and its partners that militarize the South China Sea by conducting patrols and exercises in the region with planes and warships. (Though this counter-accusation obviously ignores the heavy presence of China’s own planes and warships in the South China Sea.)
Assessments from the U.S. intelligence community and commercial imagery and analysis from the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative shows that those Spratly bases have the capacity to host and support substantial force projection capabilities like warplanes and long-range missiles. But while the United States is understandably concerned about their potential to project power across the region, it remains a potential capability, not a real one.
U.S. arguments against China’s militarization in the South China Sea are only as strong as the military significance of the Chinese systems or construction they cite. The lack of a useful American definition for militarization not only weakens these arguments, but contributes to another framing problem: distinguishing between defensive and force-projection systems. Failing to do so only serves to reinforce China’s definition of militarization.
The CS/AR-1 is not a formidable weapons system, and poses no threat to U.S. operations in the South China Sea. Last December there was even greater focus on reports that China had installed anti-aircraft guns and close-in missile defense systems on each of the seven islands it occupies in the Spratly chain. While these systems have greater reach than the CS/AR-1, they too have short-ranges, are only useful for island defense, and pose little-to-no threat to U.S. ships or aircraft in the region.
Using short-range air defense and combat swimmer defense systems as evidence of Chinese militarization puts the focus on systems that are on its Spratly bases, but that have little to no real military significance, to the detriment of U.S. arguments against it. While such weapons systems might fit into an American conception of militarization, there is no consistent definition for analysts or officials to point to. Nor is it obvious that a useful U.S. definition of militarization should include those short-range defensive systems. Their very military insignificance weakens U.S. arguments against militarization by making valid objections appear petty, and distracting from the threat the United States is really concerned about: the long-range force projection systems China might yet put on those bases.