China’s militarization of the South China Sea: between asserting sovereignty and keeping the United States out.

In early May, American intelligence announced the apparent deployment of missiles -YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles by China on the artificial islands it has constructed in the Spratly Islands. China has thus deployed offensive weapons for the first time in these islands, which is a violation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge to U.S. President Obama not to militarize the features it occupied in the Spratly Islands. So, why this missile deployment? And what is China planning in the South China Sea?

To recall the context, The Spratlys are a group of islands, islets and reefs, lying between the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam and hardly disputed by them but also by China, Taiwan and Brunei, especially because of its strategic location in the South China Sea. Indeed, these islands offer a lot of maritime natural resources such as fisheries, oil and natural gas reserves and they are bordered by major sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratlys since 2013 and has placed military facilities on them, especially defensive weapons—such as short-range missiles and point-defence systems—designed to defeat incoming missiles and most recently military jamming equipment aiming to disrupt communications and radar systems. That explains why the China Ministry of Foreign Affairs has continued to play the national defence card, downplaying the significance of the new deployment.

Maritime Boundary Claims in the South China Sea. (Map by Brookings Institution)

However, even if these new weapons can play a defensive role if foreign ships and aircraft are attacking the Spratlys, they are also offensive. Indeed, YJ-12B missiles have an estimated range of 160 to 250 nautical miles and HQ-9B missiles can hit projectiles, planes and drones within 100 nautical miles. Placed on three of the seven Chinese-occupied features known as Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, American Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated to lead U.S. Pacific Command in April, declared: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

But according to Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, China has no intention of starting a war with the United States. Instead, China appears to assert its claims and sovereignty for most of the South China Sea and make clear to its less powerful neighbours that any opposition to China in the region could have retaliation. Therefore, China is escalating the disputes in the South China Sea and testing the limits of its neighbours’ tolerance over claimed territories.

In addition, this missile deployment can allow China to take “full control of the airspace and sea space around the Spratlys region” explained Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. Therefore, even if China does not seek to start a Sino-American war, it is likely to raise the costs and make harder any future American interventions in Asia-Pacific, considering the United States as an intrusive power in the region which is trying to diminish, isolate and contain it. Indeed, even before the revelation of new deployments, Admiral Davidson revealed China seems to have already completed its bases in the Spratly Islands and could use them to challenge the United States’ presence in the region. And considering also the 2016 deployments of mobile surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missile systems at Woody Island -China’s main military base in the Paracels some experts emphasize its enormous power projection capabilities in the South China Sea and argue China is trying to create a zone of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) in the area, allowing it to keep any military competitor—especially the United States—out of range.

Chinese Power Projection Capabilities in the South China Sea. (Map by CSIS)
Chinese Power Projection Capabilities in the South China Sea. (Map by CSIS)

It is difficult to determine what the United States is planning in order to stop such militarization in the South China Sea. After the revelation, the White House warned on May 3 that China would face consequences for militarization of the South China Sea. But that remained very vague and without any concrete action until China revealed on May 18 it had landed several bombers on its artificial islands, including one on Woody Island in the disputed Paracels. In response, the United Stated uninvited China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise, the world’s largest maritime military exercise managed by the United States, but that did not constitute real countermeasures to prevent China’s continued military build-up in the region.

If we add the Trump administration’s narrow focus on the North Korean crisis and Sino-American trade frictions these past few weeks, it seems that the disputes in the South China Sea have been reduced to a secondary concern and that the actual U.S. foreign policy towards China’s lack of coherence and is not concretely defined. However, the United States would need a well-prepared plan to stop China’s militarization, preserve freedom of navigation and assure its interests in the South China Sea —including the security of its allies and the defence of the international rules-based order—while avoiding a conflict with China.