October 22, 2015

Projecting Power in the South China Sea

By Richard Fontaine

Beijing’s land reclamation in the South China Sea has prompted reports that the U.S. Navy will soon conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the area. If they pass within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, American vessels will directly challenge Beijing’s expansive maritime claims.

But Chinese island building poses another challenge beyond freedom of the seas. In constructing and militarizing outposts far from its shores, China is enhancing its ability to project power. The international response should not be limited to freedom of navigation exercises.

During his recent trip to Washington, President Xi Jinping said that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” in the South China Sea. What Mr. Xi meant by that is debatable, but Foreign Ministry officials have since confirmed the presence of military facilities on Chinese-held islands.

Satellite imagery shows a new runway on Fiery Cross Reef that can accommodate military aircraft. Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has noted the construction of aircraft hangars that appear designed to host tactical fighter aircraft and ports deep enough for warships. He expressed concern that the islands could host radars and electronic-warfare capabilities.

These facilities represent a major increase in Beijing’s capacity for force projection far from its coastline. With just one aircraft carrier, China lacks America’s ability to sail power-projection forces into vital regions. By reclaiming land and militarizing features in the South China Sea, Beijing is making up for this shortcoming and amassing capacity to project power elsewhere.

This should concern the United States and countries within the South China Sea, even those not mired in territorial disputes with Beijing. The implications for Southeast Asia are far-reaching, given China’s penchant for coercive diplomacy backed by demonstrations of military capability.

Most Western observers have noted that China’s island bases are small and exposed, which is unhelpful should a conflict ever ensue. Yet in a military contingency, China’s power-projection advantages may come not only from the aircraft or vessels based on these islands, but also from its improved situational awareness far from its shores. To that end, Beijing has already begun installing navigation aids, sophisticated radars, sensors and other technology that it claims is nonmilitary and would provide greater maritime domain awareness.

In addition, simply because the island bases may be vulnerable doesn’t mean they are without value in a regional contingency. They already enable China to exert power over other claimants or regional states that cannot counter the islands’ capabilities.

Should a short skirmish erupt at sea, most analysts agree that the first mover would have a decisive advantage. Island installations would help China succeed before cooler heads prevail in arresting it.

The trends are clear, as should be the response by the U.S. and its Asian partners. They should continue to deepen their security cooperation, not to contain China but to balance its assertiveness and reduce the prospect of coercion and conflict. This involves all regional actors—not just the U.S. Navy conducting freedom of navigation operations, or the states that claim features in the South China Sea.

By forging new partnerships and deepening old alliances, countries in the region can make China’s new runways and radars less effective. The good news is that the U.S. is pushing on an open door.

Interest in partnering with the U.S. continues to grow. Existing multilateral initiatives include renewed base access in the Philippines, arms sales to Vietnam, the stationing of littoral combat ships in Singapore and the deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Australia.

The region is also deepening defense relations on its own. Washington should support these ties by deepening interoperability between key militaries and encouraging maritime states to conduct their own freedom of navigation operations.

The imminent exercises aimed at preserving freedom of navigation are an important expression of American concern. But they are insufficient to deal with the challenge Beijing poses. In strengthening security ties and joint operations with Southeast Asia, the U.S. can help manage a China whose appetite and capacity for power projection continues to grow.

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