South China Sea – Dragon lay­ing eggs

SP's MAI - - MILITARY VIEWPOINT - The views ex­pressed herein are the per­sonal views of the author.

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?

Mis­chief Reef

LT GEN­ERAL P.C. KA­TOCH (RETD)

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