When reporting on the South China Sea, it has become commonplace for media around the world to draw upon think tank research detailing China’s developing military capable facilities in the region. Some use the information to bolster campaigns to convince the US Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to the country’s interests, including freedom of navigation. But the deepening drumbeat for the US to militarily confront China in the South China Sea should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism.
US ISR missions include active ‘tickling’ of China’s coastal defences to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, ‘preparation of the battlefield’ using legal ambiguities to evade the scientific research consent regime, and tracking of China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base. In China’s view these are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by most states. Moreover, they are not uses of the ocean for peaceful purposes as required by UNCLOS, but are intrusive and controversial practices threatening the use of force which is prohibited by the UN Charter.
Western think-tank research seems often one-sided and focused on ‘outing’ China. More balanced analysis would pay equivalent attention to other claimants’ activities — particularly those of the US navy and its own ‘militarisation’ of the South China Sea. While China might present a problem for the US navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the United States still maintains the overall military advantage in the South China Sea. It currently operates with combat military vessels and aircraft as well as manned ISR assets. It is also deploying aerial, surface and underwater drones to the area.
Research on the South China Sea also commonly neglects the vulnerability of China’s installations to the US capability to destroy them. In any conflict scenario — and interference with commercial freedom of navigation would likely incite conflict — these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range cruise missiles.
According to Dennis Blair, retired Admiral and former US director of national intelligence, ‘The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us’. Vietnam has deployed advanced mobile rocket launchers to some of the features it occupies thus threatening China’s installations.
China apparently does not consider defensive installations ‘militarisation’. It has repeatedly warned it will defend itself if the United States persists with provocative ISR probes and Freedom of Navigation exercises (FONOPs) near its coast and occupied features. In a January 2016 teleconference with US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said that ‘We won’t not set up defences. How many defences completely depends on the level of threat we face’. Self-defence is every nation’s right.
There is obviously disagreement over the definition of ‘militarisation’ and who is doing it. Was the recent US deployment of the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike force into the South China Sea ‘militarising’ the Sea? What about US ally Japan announcing with great media hype that it will send its largest naval vessel there? Both China and the US are ‘militarising’ the South China Sea — at least in each other’s eyes.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), Haikou.