National Security & Defense

The Showdown in the South China Sea

Chinese Coast Guard vessel in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty)
A plan to keep Beijing from ruling the the Spratly Islands.

On January 3, a Chinese plane touched down on a remote island airfield where, two years ago, there was no island, let alone any airfield — only a lonely stretch of reef in the South China Sea. That reef in the Spratly Islands, known as Yongshu Jiao to China and Fiery Cross Reef to everyone else, has become the eye of an international diplomatic storm.

At issue is who owns the Spratlys, a collection of reefs, rocks, and tiny islets; no fewer than six governments (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and the Sultanate of Brunei) claim sovereignty over part or — in China’s case — all of them.

Fiery Cross, for example, is partly claimed by Vietnam, which has dubbed the Chinese-built airfield “illegal” and the plane landing as “a serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam on the Spratly archipelago.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman shot back, “China has indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys, which Beijing calls the Nansha Islands, as well as “their adjacent waters,” and that “China will not accept the unfounded accusation from the Vietnamese side.”

This is just the latest installment in an intensifying war of nerves for control of the Spratly Islands, which has included Chinese ships’ water-cannoning and even ramming Vietnamese and Philippine maritime-police and fishing vessels, as well as issuing a warning to a U.S. surveillance plane in May to “go away” after the plane flew too close to one of the islands’ alleged twelve-mile territorial limit.

It’s also the latest proof that the current Obama strategy for dealing with China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea isn’t working, and may in fact be making matters worse.

No one expects China and Vietnam to go to war over the Spratlys this time, although the two countries did in 1988 when 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed. Also, the plane that landed on Fiery Cross was a commercial, not a military, aircraft. But with China building military facilities on nearby Subi Reef, the arrival of war planes on Fiery Cross is now virtually assured.

At stake are not only the Spratly’s rich but untapped deep water oil and natural gas reserves, but the issue of freedom of navigation in the China Sea region, including by the United States. Indeed, China’s aggressive claims to Spratlys are part of a much larger strategy to drive the U. S. Navy out of the China Sea region — and the United States out of the Western Pacific entirely.

At stake are not only the Spratly’s rich but untapped deep water oil and natural gas reserves, but the issue of freedom of navigation in the China Sea region.

Ironically, the plane incident comes after Obama-administration officials were busy patting themselves on the back for the voyage of the Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen within twelve nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratlys, back on October 27. The destroyer, accompanied by Navy surveillance aircraft (and shadowed by People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, destroyers), was supposed to be part of a pushback against China’s sovereignty claims, by asserting the principle of freedom of navigation through international waters.

But we now know the Lassen mission was too little too late. Many wonder whether China has not only won the race for sovereignty over key parts of the Spratlys, but also secured a base from which to dominate shipping through this vital part of the South China Sea — through which $5 trillion of commerce passes every year.

China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea date back to at least 2010. But it was only this past spring, after news leaked to the New York Times and other media outlets that China was reclaiming land for airstrips on the Spratly atolls under its control — including on Subi Reef, which reporters and others dubbed “China’s Great Wall of Sand” — that the administration finally decided it needed to take action to halt further moves aimed at turning the South China Sea into a Chinese bay.

We know the White House came under increasing pressure from both the Navy and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to do something about the Spratlys, not only to restrain China but also to reassure other countries in the region that Obama’s vaunted “pivot to the Pacific” was not just rhetoric. The administration’s claim that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation . . . and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” as then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton told the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in 2010, couldn’t be taken as just another “red line” non-commitment à la Syria.

For China, securing control of these islands has become a basic part of its “first island chain” strategy to protect its vulnerable southern coast by sealing off other powers’ access to the area, particularly that of the United States.

So when the USS Lassen’s mission was announced, Beijing immediately expressed “its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” and its response was swift. Its South Sea Fleet ran a naval exercise in the South China Sea the next day. It also leaked reports that a PLAN vessel might ram the next U.S. warship to try the same thing. This is no idle threat; in December 2013, a Chinese patrol craft turned across the bow of the USS Cowpens in waters not far from Subi Reef, nearly causing a collision. It would be easy for Beijing to make a deliberate collision look like an accident, especially if it became a matter of our word against theirs.

In short, China and America are now locked in an international game of chicken in the South China Sea, with the stakes being who will be the dominant superpower in the Pacific. The U.S. won’t just look weak and ineffective if it doesn’t deal forthrightly with China’s South China Sea challenge, and soon. Such a failure could also presage a major shift in alliances in the region, with repercussions as far away as India and the Horn of Africa.

Sovereignty over the Spratlys has been a major source of tension between China and its neighbors since at least the clash with Vietnam in 1988. In 1992, China signed an ASEAN declaration binding signatories to preserving the Spratly status quo, in effect agreeing to disagree over the conflicting claims, but in 1995 it seized a reef from the Philippines on which it set up a military outpost.

China has since placed the Spratlys and the nearby Reed Bank under nominal control of a newly created prefecture-level “city,” Sansha, off China’s coast. No city of Sansha actually exists. But it boasts a mayor, 45 elected deputies in the local legislative congress, and a standing 15-member committee to represent all present and future Chinese residents of not only the Spratly Islands but of all the islands in the South China Sea.

China’s claim of the Spratlys alone is already hard for its neighbors to swallow, especially when considering that the islands are more than 680 miles from China itself. So to make its point clearer, Beijing began “reclaiming” land on islands and reefs where there had been no land at all before.

In all, Chinese engineers have added approximately four square kilometers to the Spratlys, using dredging equipment that scrapes up sand from reefs and shoals and dumps it out as foundations for buildings and particularly for airstrips. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, has said publicly that he believes the “great wall of sand” project is aimed at building a series of permanent military bases for the Chinese air force and navy.

China isn’t just remaking the Spratlys. It’s preparing to defend its claims by force.

Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, where the plane landed on Sunday, is now more than eleven times its natural size, complete with its 10,000-foot-long runway — big enough for any military aircraft. China is building a similar runway on Subi Reef. The Chinese have also installed artillery pieces on Fiery Cross (which were either removed or hidden after they were spotted by a U.S. satellite). 

In short, China isn’t just remaking the Spratlys. It’s preparing to defend its claims by force.

Outraged, other claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have urged the United States to counter China’s de facto annexation. But what stake does the United States have in the Spratlys, which are nearly 6,000 miles from Hawaii?

The first stake is defending international law and preserving freedom of navigation in the maritime commons, on which America’s own livelihood depends. The United States also has a binding defense agreement with Taiwan and formal defense treaties with the Philippines and non-claimant Japan, which worries that what China is getting away with in the Spratlys will be repeated in the East China Sea, where Japan’s dispute with Beijing over another scattering of rocks and atolls, the Senkaku Islands, is ongoing.

China’s goal is clear: to drive the United States out of Southeast Asia and intimidate other claimants to the Spratlys into obedience. The United States’ goal should be just as clear: to keep the islands free for navigation for all nations, including China, and to force Beijing to accept international arbitration on claims to natural resources, including oil and gas.

The recent U.S. naval action will look weak if there’s no follow-up. It might have looked stronger to begin with: A carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt would have sent a more forceful signal than a single warship. And the Defense Department’s promise that it will also conduct cruises within twelve miles of islands claimed by other states, including the Philippines and Vietnam, borders on the ridiculous, since China is the only claimant disturbing the peace in the South China Sea.

Indeed, the Obama Pentagon may have already blown the message. By failing to turn on fire-control sensors during its cruise, for example, the Lassen failed to follow the proper procedures for a genuine “freedom of navigation” operation. Instead, to Chinese observers the voyage looked more like an “innocent passage,” which the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows, even for military vessels within the sovereign twelve-nautical-mile limit. Far from denying China’s claims to sovereignty over the Spratlys, the October 27 trip could be seen as conceding those claims.

This is why regular freedom-of-navigation cruises by Navy warships, and overflights by U.S. fighter jets are now more necessary than ever — but they are still only a first step. The next should be a joint flotilla of U.S., Philippine, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Australian vessels sailing inside the supposed twelve-mile limit, in order to make the point that these are international waters. It would also reduce the impression of a specifically U.S.–China showdown.

If China succeeds in establishing a military presence in this corner of the South China Sea, it will pose a direct strategic threat to U.S. interests.

But these responses still will not address the real danger. If China succeeds in establishing a military presence in this corner of the South China Sea, it will pose a direct strategic threat to U.S. interests. Even the Obama administration has belatedly acknowledged this. China’s South Sea Fleet, headquartered in Zhanjiang; its two new nuclear submarines; its first aircraft carrier, based in Hainan (a large island and China’s southernmost province), which could provide air cover for any extended operations around the Spratlys — all of these developments have added to the danger.

Therefore, the United States also should convene an international conference to “demilitarize” the Spratlys. It would argue that demilitarization is necessary to secure free passage for all vessels, including military ones.

None of this will assuage Vietnamese feelings, which the plane landing Sunday have exacerbated.  But if China gets its way in the Spratlys, this will (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) be only the first sip of a bitter cup. China will eventually make similar moves in the East China Sea and step up its efforts to construct a ring of naval bases around the Indian Ocean. (Most recently it announced plans for a new naval base in Djibouti.) Access to some of the most vital sea lanes in the world — not to mention America’s relationships with its allies in the Pacific and beyond — is at stake.

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