South China Sea – Dragon laying eggs
India has never claimed the Indian Ocean but China has been saying periodically that Indian Ocean does not belong to India —exhibiting the intellect of a special child. But when it comes to the South China Sea (SCS), China claims entire SCS as its own—exhibiting qualities of a spoilt brat. China refuses to respect the universally acknowledged United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China does not respect global commons and has refused to recognise the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial claims of the Philippines filed in 2013 against China over disputed areas in SCS. Chinese mindset is rooted in her historical ‘ Tian Xia’ (under the Heaven) concept which traditionally views ‘all territories’ under the sun belonging to Chinese. After China became a net importer of oil in 1993, she has been publicly declaring intentions of stepping beyond its traditional continental land oriented security paradigms.
China has identified the first quarter of 21st century as a period of ‘strategic opportunity’ and the next for ‘strategic expansion’ for becoming a ‘Great Power’. Tensions have been rising in SCS because of Chinese aggressive stance. Last year, USS Lassen entered Zhubi Reef, which China claims part of China’s Nansha islands. Zhubi Reef is an undersea rock in the SCS that China has built into an artificial island in the contested Spratly Islands. Beijing’s claim is illegal since UNCLOS specifies that coastal states may construct artificial islands within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) extending 200 nm off their coasts. Beyond that limit, the law allows no such projects. Zhubi Reef is 500 nm from nearest Chinese shoreline. The US has termed the USS Lassen incident a ‘regular occurrence’ but China says if such provocations continue, Chinese warships will have to engage in face-offs.
It remains to be seen how the situation develops; China denying freedom of navigation at sea to other nations and US wanting to ensure freedom of movement in global commons. In recent months, has stepped up ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in SCS close to territory claimed by Beijing to assert Washington’s view that these areas remain international waters and airspace. But China has continued to build facilities arguing that it is US who is militarising the SCS. China has now deployed more advanced J-11BH/BHS fighter aircraft on Woody Island which is largest of the Paracel Islands in SCS. Surface-to-air missile batteries have appeared last month in the Paracels, more than 500 km to the north, and satellite photos show powerful radar facilities, potentially extending the kill zone of missiles on the Chinese mainland that are devised to sink aircraft carriers.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the isles in SCS to expand China’s military footprint in the region, gradually building and militarising and equip outposts as far from the Chinese mainland as possible, also challenging the military status quo in the Western Pacific – in line with extending a security buffer extending far from its coast. By the same analogy for creating a buffer on land, China had annexed Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. The placement of advanced fighter aircraft on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago extends China’s fighter aircraft an additional 360 km into the SCS from the nearest Chinese airbase on Hainan Island. Farther south of Woody Island, China is building airbases and port facilities in Spratly Islands. These include Subi Reef (mentioned above), Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross, adding airstrips, hangars, weapon storage facilities and fuel storage tanks. The build-up has been incremental but very swift while China’s neighbours have been locked in a stalemate over the islands. Dredging of sand to build artificial islands atop coral reefs in the Spratlys began began in 2014 but has accelerated in recent months, now featuring deepwater harbours and long runways suitable for warships and fighter jets.
China’s military aircraft, missile batteries and radars serve multiple purposes, mainly to deter the US and allies and countries in Asia-Pacific that have claims on islands in SCS, plus freedom of navigation for the international community at large. As per Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr, Commander US Pacific Command, China’s actions are changing the operational landscape in the SCS. James R. Clapper, Director US National Intelligence Agency, says that China would “have significant capacity to quickly project substantial military power to the region” by early 2017. The question is will China have her way or will there be flashpoints and if so what would be the outcome?
LT GENERAL P.C. KATOCH (RETD)