China’s militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea marks a definitive shift in the regional status quo as US hegemony in Southeast Asia continues to recede.
– China has landed nuclear-capable long-range bombers on an island in the South China Sea for the first time
– China has also installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three fortified outposts in the Spratly/Nansha Islands
– Requests for de-escalation have been met by official assertions of China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction
– Upcoming US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) will be a pivotal test of the newly established Chinese status quo
FROM BEIJING TO NANSHA
China’s policy of strategic denial in the South China Sea reached new heights this month. On May 2, news outlet CNBC cited US intelligence reports that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three fortified outposts in the Spratly Islands, building on Beijing’s considerable array of communications jamming equipment and radar systems. Despite previous commitments not to militarise the reefs, reports indicate the anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles may target objects up to 546.34 km and 296.32 km off the reefs respectively, distances that reach well into the airspace of neighbouring states.
Other claimants to the disputed region, in particular by Vietnam and the Philippines, have called for the withdrawal of these missiles. Those calls have not as yet received any formal response, although on May 18 Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated that no country, organisation, company, or individual can carry out oil and gas exploration or exploitation in waters under Chinese jurisdiction without permission from Beijing. The move is a drastic transformation of regional relations and signals the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intent to assert “China’s sovereign and jurisdictional rights.” All eyes will therefore be upon the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the expected seventh US FONOPs of the Trump’s administration, due in the next month with wide-ranging implications therein for neighboring nations and increasingly tumultuous relations.
As Foreign Brief has reported, these developments form the capstone to a series of events unfolding in the wake of China’s renewed influence in international affairs. Emboldened by its rising pre-eminence, Beijing’s pursuit of claims to islands in the South China have seen it grow increasingly bellicose in the lead up to its present initiative. The past six years have seen China wrest control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, disregard a seminal ruling on sovereignty by the intergovernmental Permanent Court of Arbitration, and undertake a near-continuous effort of land reclamation of 1,295 hectares to date.
Though these activities have undoubtedly left many feeling apprehensive of China’s true interests, much of the regional community had held hopes for the emergence of a mutually beneficial arrangement between the claimants. States had hung on President Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge that China’s activities, “do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarisation.” But since then more evidence of the placements of military assets have emerged – even as China’s Foreign Ministry has reduced its efforts to couch the PLA’s activities in terms of benign civilian and disaster relief applications. Attempts by ASEAN to emphasise the non-use of force and resolution through negotiation, establishing the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the SCS, have similarly met with little actual reciprocity.
The reality of China’s militaristic intentions were ultimately evinced in July 2017 when executives from the Spanish global energy company Repsol said that China threatened to initiate a military conflict with their host Vietnam over a controversial drilling project in the disputed Spratly Islands. With US appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China fast fading over the horizon there was little option for Vietnam but to acquiesce to the Chinese pressure.
Now with greater strategic might at its disposal, China is once again exerting pressure on a new drilling project by Rosneft Vietnam BV, a unit of Russian state oil firm Rosneft that is expecting to face similar injunctions as Repsol. While it would be a serious blow to the burgeoning Sino-Russian entente if Beijing asked Moscow to end its energy projects with Vietnam, there appears appetite to do just that, signalling the degree to which China is willing to enforce its claims. In conjunction with their increasing strategic capacities, the parameters for future interstate engagement and investment flows within the disputed territory appear to have taken on a distinctly Chinese frame of reference.
JUST PASSING THROUGH
Xi’s pledge not to militarise was made to the US; having broken it, the question remains how the regional heavyweight will respond. Aside from an apparent commitment to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea, the US has been largely absent from any real exercise to curtail the CCP’s expanding militaristic program. Hollow rhetorical positions have done little to boost the confidence of regional allies, ultimately seeking only to embolden Chinese efforts to establish their regional preeminence.
That said, US FONOPs are noteworthy for their capacity to underline the present state of affairs in the disputed region, particularly with regard to the state of US-China relations. In the past US forces have sailed well within the internationally prescribed exclusive zone allotted to sovereign territory, indicating Washington’s rejection of Beijing’s claim. With China’s deployment of improved military assets, the US may instead take a more circuitous route to avoid a direct confrontation. This would allow the US to maintain the principle of freedom of navigation while also equivocating on the direct question of Chinese sovereignty and jurisdiction, much to the chagrin of claimant states.
For Southeast Asian nations, the issue may not be quite so easy to avoid. China’s increased assertiveness is set to relegate the promise of achieving mutually beneficial arrangements into distant memory. Indonesia for one has rejected power projection by any single nation in the South China Sea, expressing their interest in the settlement of overlapping claims over territory through negotiations. Yet future contests over territory will undoubtedly fall the way of China as weaker claimants struggle to compete with strategic geoeconomic pressure as well as direct military coercion.
The Philippines in particular is already faced with some difficult choices regarding its soft bandwagoning with China which has failed to provide any of their hoped-for rewards. If similar exchanges over coastal resources as those occurring in the waters off Vietnam arise, such territorial infringements may incur significant policy upheaval among claimant states amounting to as much as a strategic backflip from a Sinocentric regional order. Short of such a sharp about-face however, the increasingly evident reality in the South China Sea seems to be one of a largely foregone CCP-prescribed conclusion.
Jonathan is the East and Southeast Asia team’s lead analyst for stories emanating from China and Southeast Asia.