August 25, 2015

Changing Tides in South China Sea

By Elbridge Colby

China’s rapid effort to build artificial islands in the South China Sea is far more than a diplomatic challenge. For China’s neighbors and the United States, it could soon become a serious military problem as well.

Although the Chinese government has maintained that its outposts will be used mainly for non-military purposes, U.S. officials have indicated otherwise. The head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, has argued that China’s “Great Wall of Sand” could support fighter aircraft, surveillance systems and electronic warfare capabilities. 

Yet many U.S. analysts appear convinced that China’s construction activities won’t meaningfully affect U.S. military advantages in the area. An oft-heard remark in Washington is that China’s artificial islands would be easy targets for U.S. air and naval forces during a conflict. The conventional wisdom is that their strategic value is negligible.

Unfortunately this view is far too sanguine. To be sure, the islands’ small size, remote location and inherent vulnerability make it unlikely that Beijing would be able to use them for sustained combat operations, even against some of its weaker neighbors. But small quantities of the right capabilities could alter the military balance in the region, and a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) buildup in the area could give China an important coercive edge.

With expansive port facilities and extended runways, artificial islands could serve as logistical hubs for maritime forces and forward bases for aircraft. So equipped, China could increase the endurance of its naval platforms operating in the area; fly regular airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets much farther from its coastline; and conduct combat air patrols over territory that it claims as its own, perhaps in support of a future air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. 

Even without this infrastructure, China’s artificial islands might host anti-ship missile batteries and air-defense systems that would heighten the risk to any surface vessels and aircraft in the vicinity. If Beijing deployed these weapons to several different islands in the South China Sea, and if these weapons had sufficient range, then it might be able to create mini denial zones, where other countries’ civilian and military assets could be held at risk from multiple locations. 

Meanwhile, a network of ground-based surveillance radars far from mainland China would provide Beijing with much better situational awareness of the region during peacetime—and targeting information on opponents in the event of war.

Such measures would have major ramifications. By enabling Beijing to increase its military presence in the South China Sea, armed outposts could contribute to a strategy of creeping expansionism, whereby China gradually extends its influence while avoiding major provocations that make retaliation more likely. Most of China’s neighbors possess modest military capabilities to project power beyond their borders, so stationing any forces on these islands could have an outsized impact on the local military balance. And that could make it more likely that China’s neighbors resign themselves to bandwagoning with China rather than balancing against it.

Forward-deployed Chinese forces could also encourage China’s neighbors to stay on the sidelines during any crisis between Beijing and Washington. The U.S. then might not enjoy much-needed access to facilities on their territory. 

While Chinese forces on artificial islands probably would not last long in a serious fight against the U.S., they might be able to gather valuable information on U.S. assets, alter the way those assets operate and perhaps even launch attacks that inflict significant costs—especially if the U.S. is caught by surprise or is reluctant to conduct its own strikes on territory claimed by China.

An expanding network of Chinese bases in the South China Sea could thus cast a dark shadow over states in the region and over vital sea lanes that connect Asia with Europe and the Middle East. It is therefore crucial for the U.S. and like-minded actors in the region to do what they can to check China’s further expansion. 

While it might not be possible to physically stop Beijing from building up its military power in the South China Sea, it is possible to increase the costs and risks to China by raising the diplomatic temperature on Beijing, more closely banding together to balance Chinese power, building military and non-military forces to uphold the existing order and showing the willingness to use them. Steps like these would show Beijing that further military expansion is likely to backfire. 

If Beijing can widen its military footprint with slight costs, however, there is little reason to think it will stop.

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