Misconstruing China’s threat to the South China Sea
The deepening drumbeat for Washington to militarily confront Beijing in the controversial maritime territories should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism
When reporting on the South China Sea, it has become commonplace for media around the world to draw upon think tank research detailing China’s developing military capable facilities in the region.
Some use the information to bolster campaigns to convince the US Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to the country’s interests, including freedom of navigation. But the deepening drumbeat for the US to militarily confront China in the South China Sea should be considered with a healthy dose of scepticism.
One report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies describes China’s latest construction projects in the South China Sea, concluding that it “can now deploy military assets including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time.”
This is fact. But the AMTI director also warned in a subsequent interview to “look for deployment in the near future”. This implies that China intends to use these facilities to do so. This is supposition.
Australia’s Lowy Institute released a similar report fretting that “these strategic outposts will permit Beijing to enhance its power projection capabilities and establish anti-access zones right across the South China Sea”. There are many bad things that could happen in the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean that they will.
Media distortion flourishes when academic analysts themselves push US-slanted research. Let’s take the concern that China will interfere with freedom of commercial navigation. Media articles often cite the more than US$5 trillion trade that transits the South China Sea.
The obvious inference is that China may use their facilities to disrupt this trade. This is possible. But China has not done so, is unlikely to do so and maintains it will not do so. China’s economy depends on seaborne trade through the South China Sea, which would likely be interrupted in a conflict.
The United States has cleverly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to undertake provocative military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities (ISR).
The US argument is that freedom of navigation is indivisible and includes both commercial navigation and US IRR probes.
The United States then argues that China’s interference with its military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) violates freedom of navigation. But China argues that it is not challenging freedom of navigation itself, only the abuse of this right by the US military in its EEZ.
US ISR missions include active ‘tickling’ of China’s coastal defences to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, ‘preparation of the battlefield’ using legal ambiguities to evade the scientific research consent regime, and tracking of China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base.
In China’s view these are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by most states. Moreover, they are not uses of the ocean for peaceful purposes as required by UNCLOS, but are intrusive and controversial practices threatening the use of force which is prohibited by the UN Charter.
Western think-tank research seems often one-sided and focused on ‘outing’ China. More balanced analysis would pay equivalent attention to other claimants’ activities — particularly those of the US navy and its own ‘militarisation’ of the South China Sea.
While China might present a problem for the US navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the United States still maintains the overall military advantage in the South China Sea. It currently operates with combat military vessels and aircraft as well as manned ISR assets. It is also deploying aerial, surface and underwater drones to the area.
Research on the South China Sea also commonly neglects the vulnerability of China’s installations to the US capability to destroy them. In any conflict scenario — and interference with commercial freedom of navigation would likely incite conflict — these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range cruise missiles.
According to Dennis Blair, retired Admiral and former US director of national intelligence, “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us.”
Vietnam has deployed advanced mobile rocket launchers to some of the features it occupies thus threatening China’s installations.
China apparently does not consider defensive installations ‘militarisation’. It has repeatedly warned it will defend itself if the United States persists with provocative ISR probes and Freedom of Navigation exercises (FONOPs) near its coast and occupied features.
In a January 2016 teleconference with US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said that “We won’t not set up defences. How many defences completely depends on the level of threat we face”. Self-defence is every nation’s right.
There is obviously disagreement over the definition of ‘militarisation’ and who is doing it. Was the recent US deployment of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike force into the South China Sea ‘militarising’ the Sea? What about US ally Japan announcing with great media hype that it will send its largest naval vessel there? Both China and the US are ‘militarising’ the South China Sea — at least in each other’s eyes.