Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sovereignty Assertion in the South China Sea: Militarization and the Construction of Artificial Islands

Sovereignty Assertion in the South China Sea: Militarization and the Construction of Artificial Islands
Carlyle A. Thayer

Sovereignty Assertion in the South China Sea:

Militarization and the Construction of Artificial Islands

Carlyle A. Thayer[1]

Part 1 Introduction

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea that links the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific. The security of the sea lanes, that pass through it are vital for global commerce. It is estimated that more than $5.3 trillion in commerce passes through the South China Sea annually. In addition, secure passage through and overflight are vital for the world’s major maritime powers. Any outbreak of conflict or disruption to the sea lanes would have an immediate and serious. impact on the world’s economy.
This paper provides an analytic overview of militarization and the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea by five claimants: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The paper is divided into four parts. Part one provides an introduction. Part two considers what activities constitute militarization. The paper argues that militarization constitutes a spectrum of activities from putting military forces on a particular feature to making preparations for war. Along this spectrum there is a grey area where activity such as constructing airfields, piers and ports can serve both civilian and military roles. The paper argues that the placement of fighter aircraft, anti-ship missiles, amphibious landing ships and naval warships constitutes militarization at the high end of the scale that threaten regional peace and security. Part three discusses what military forces, weapons and equipment have been placed on the features in the Spratly islands by the five claimants. Part four, the conclusion, discusses the implications for regional security following the award by the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the claims of The Philippines v China.

Part 2 What Constitutes Militarization?

In 2014 China began to implement a master plan to expand and consolidate its presence in the South China Sea. China transformed seven rocks and low tide elevations that it occupied into artificial islands. In the space of eighteen months China dredged and pumped sand from the seabed and coral ripped out of nearby reefs on its tiny features until they encompassed an area twelve square kilometres in size. [2] This contrasts with the efforts by other claimants – Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – who expanded their land area by 0.4 square kilometres over four and a half decades.[3]
In 2015, the pace and scope of China’s construction activities picked up markedly. China began to build infrastructure including airstrips and multistory buildings. In April 2015, United States defence officials claimed they had spotted self-propelled artillery on Fiery Cross Reef that was removed later.[4]
The following month Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke to reporters in Hawaii as he was transiting to Singapore to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue; he noted that unilateral ‘land reclamation’[5] and militarization was a new development and the United States would oppose ‘any further militarization’ of disputed islands.[6]
On 30 May, Secretary Carter addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where he spoke at greater length to a regional audience:
The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states. As a Pacific nation, a trading nation and a member of the international community, the United States has every right to be involved and concerned.[7]
Secretary Carter’s remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue set off a war of words over the militarization of the South China Sea between Chinese and United States officials that continues to the present. Two separate issues became entangled in this exchange: the purpose of the infrastructure being built on China’s artificial islands, and U.S. freedom of navigation operational patrols (FONOP).
On 24 July 2015, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, provided one of the most detailed accounts of China’s construction activities in the Spratly islands by an American official. Harris reported that China was building ports deep enough to berth warships and a runway on Fiery Cross Reef 915 meters longer than needed by a Boeing 747 aircraft to take off but long enough for a B-52 bomber. In addition, Harris noted that China was constructing aircraft hangars protected by revetments for tactical fighter aircraft. ‘I believe those facilities are clearly military in nature’, he said, and would serve as forward operating posts by China’s military in combat against regional states. Also, China’s artificial islands ‘extends a surveillance network that could be in place with radars, electronic warfare capabilities and the like’, he concluded.[8]
Six days later China’s Ministry of National Defence responded to Admiral Harris. ‘The Chinese side expresses its serioU.S. concern over U.S. activities to militarize the South China Sea region’, said Yang Yujun, a Defence Ministry spokesperson.[9] Yang singled out U.S. naval patrols and joint military drills that raised regional tensions. His remarks likely were a reference to the 20 May flight of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft near Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs and the 18 July flight of another Poseidon over the area carrying Admiral Scott Swift, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.[10]
The next round of charges and counter-charges were aired in AugU.S.t on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur at a private meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. According to a senior U.S. official, Secretary Kerry raised concerns about ‘China’s large-scale reclamation, construction, and militarization of features’.[11]
According to media reports Wang Yi accU.S.ed the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea by staging joint patrols and military drills with its regional allies and stepping up its U.S.e of military bases in the Philippines.[12] Wang was quoted as stating, the U.S. and the Philippines should ‘count how many runways there are in the South China Sea and who built them first’.[13] When asked about Kerry’s call for all claimants ‘to halt problematic actions’, Wang retorted, ‘China has stopped, China has stopped. You want to see who is building? Take a plane and see who is still building’.[14]
A major development took place during the course of President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Washington, D. C. on 25 September. At a joint press conference with President Barack Obama, Xi stated, ‘Relevant construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha [Spratly] islands do not target or impact any country and China does not intend to pursue militarization’.[15]
The U.S.-China war of words spilled over to the 4 November meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting PlU.S. (ADMM-PlU.S.). China succeeded in blocking any reference to the South China Sea in the draft joint statement. The United States took the position that it would not support a joint statement that omitted any reference to the South China Sea; as a result no joint statement was issued.[16]
The November end-of-year ASEAN and related summits provided another venue for the U.S. and China to exchange barbs over who was militarizing the South China Sea. On 5 November, after the conclU.S.ion of the 3rd ADMM-PlU.S., Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter flew out to the U.S.S Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) operating in the southern waters of the South China Sea. He was accompanied by Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin HU.S.sein. Earlier in Kuala Lumpur Carter told the press, ‘We urge all claimants to permanently halt land reclamation, stop the construction of new facilities and cease further militarization of disputed features’.[17]
Hua Chunyuing, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, retorted, ‘What we are against is the attempt to militarize the South China Sea and even to challenge and threaten other countries’ sovereignty and security interests under the name of freedom of navigation’.[18] Hua was referring to the FNOP by the U.S.S Lassen (DDG-82), a guided missile destroyer that passed within twelve nautical miles (nm) of Subi reef on 27 October.[19]
On 18 November President Obama and President Benigno Aquino met in Manila. President Obama weighed in on the South China Sea at a joint press conference immediately after, ‘We agreed on the need for bold steps to lower tensions including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea’.[20]
Three days after President Obama’s remarks Admiral Harris weighed in once again. Speaking to a foreign policy forum in Canada, Harris called China’s construction of artificial islands ‘provocative’. [21] He stated that China had started ‘building runways and support facilities to support possible militarization of an area vital to the global economy’. Harris also revealed that Chinese military units were now warning ships and planes legally operating in the South China Sea that they are not permitted to enter China’s claimed security zone.
China once again summarily dismissed U.S. calls to halt construction on its artificial islands out of hand. Government officials argued that China was only catching up and doing what other claimants had already done. On 22 November, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin stated that ‘to build necessary defence facilities on islands far away from our mainland is required by the need both of national defense and of safeguarding our islands and reefs. They should not be mistaken for actions to militarize the South China Sea’.[22]
Liu also observed that ‘major countries’ outside the region ‘are exercising their so-called freedom of navigation by sending airplanes and warships while strengthening military cooperation with countries in the region. Isn’t that a trend of militarization? We should stay on high alert against it. Don’t make troubles on purpose’.[23]
Nevertheless China also sent out mixed messages about its so-called land reclamation. On 5 AugU.S.t Foreign Minister Wang stated that land reclamation had ‘already stopped’.[24] In September, as noted above, President Xi pledged that ‘China does not intend to pursue militarization’ in the Spratly islands. Yet on 22 November Vice Minister Liu stated that ‘some construction projects will be completed within years’.[25]
Two days later Hong Li, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, stated that China completed ‘land reclamation’ in June but ‘some civilian facilities’ were being built including two’.[26] He then asserted, ‘(w)e will also build necessary defense facilities on some islands and reefs. The relevant construction will be moderate, which has nothing to do with militarization, targets no countries, and [does] not obstruct varioU.S. countries’ enjoyment of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international law’.
Tensions were raised in December when two U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers flew over the South China Sea within two nm of China’s artificial islands. U.S. officials claimed the B-52 over-flight was ‘unintentional’ and not a freedom of navigation patrol.[27] An editorial in a hawkish Chinese newspaper asserted that the bomber flight was ‘aggressive’ and ‘severely threatened the security of the islands’.[28] The editorial argued that if China did not respond to such flights it would be giving implicit approval to ‘hostile actions’. U.S. over flights would ‘propel China to accelerate militarizing’ its artificial islands. The editorial then noted that that the premise for China’s policy of the artificial islands for peaceful purposes was that ‘no external military force threatens their security. The U.S. military is undermining this premise’. In conclU.S.ion, China had no other option but to build up its military capability and deploying fighter jets to challenge U.S. over flights in future.
It soon became clear that the main theme of the editorial by the Global Times reflected official Chinese policy. On 20 January 2016 China’s Navy Chief Wu Shengli told his U.S. counterpart, Admiral John Richardson, in a teleconference that ‘(o)ur necessary defensive step of building on islands and reefs in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands is not militarization… We will certainly not seek the militarization of the islands and reefs, but we won’t not set up defenses. How many defenses completely depends on the level of threat we face’.[29]
In late January 2016 the U.S.S Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) conducted a second freedom of navigation operational patrol in the South China Sea.[30] This time the operation was carried out near Triton island in the Paracels. In what appeared to be a tit-for-tat response, two weeks later China deployed two batteries of the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and radar system on Woody island in the Paracels.[31] Shortly after, Beijing deployed several Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 combat aircraft to the islands.[32]
In March, China conducted military exercises on and around the Paracel Islands, reportedly including the YJ-62 anti-ship missile system.[33] On 7 April, further satellite imagery revealed that China deployed two more J-11s to Woody Island and at the same time installed a fire-control radar system.[34]
China’s action kept alive the war of words between the United States and China. Secretary Kerry told reporters, ‘(t)here is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization on one kind or another It’s of serioU.S. concern… I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serioU.S. conversation on this’.[35] China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei invoked China’s right to self-defence and ‘international duties and obligations’ to jU.S.tify the deployment of the HQ-9 system. Hong asserted, ‘(w)e will deploy necessary national defence facilities  on the islands. It’s an exercise of self-preservation and defence, a right granted to [sic] international law to sovereign states’.[36]
The issue of militarizing the South China Sea is not new. In 2013 the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Rosario first expressed serioU.S. concern over the militarization of the South China Sea by the massive presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships and maritime law enforcement vessels at Second Thomas Shoal.[37]
Throughout the current war of words between the United States and China neither side has defined what they mean by militarization. In everyday U.S.age the term militarization means ‘to put weapons and military forces in (an area)’, ‘to give a military quality or character to (something)’, ‘to give a military character to’, ‘to equip with military forces and defences’, and ‘to adapt for military U.S.e’.[38] Militarization can also be defined as equipping forces with weapons ‘in preparation for war’.[39]
The lack of precision in defining militarization has been noted by a number of regional security analysts. For example, Mark Valencia, an Adjunct Research Fellow at the China National Institute for South China Sea Studies on Hainan island, notes that the broadest definition of militarization the South China Sea has been militarized by all claimants long ago. According to Valencia, ‘All have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbors that have accommodated military aircraft and vessels’.[40] The same point has been made by M. Taylor Fravel who observed that many of the features in the South China Sea occupied by China and other claimants were garrisoned with troops and some minimum level of defensive weaponry long ago.[41]
Valencia also raises several pertinent rhetorical questions about the U.S.e of the term militarization. Does occasional military U.S.e qualify as militarization? Who determines what is meant by occasional? Does intent matter? What about cases where the military is U.S.ed for humanitarian purposes such as search and rescue and disaster response? What about for defensive purposes only?
Mira Rapp-Hooper and Patrick Cronin concur with Fravel in arguing that militarization should not be broadly defined. They argue that Obama Administration policy-makers should be specific about what Chinese behavior and actions they find objectionable. They note that radar, communications equipment, and support facilities such as helipads, ports, and airfields are dual U.S.e in nature. [42]
Rapp-Hooper and Cronin offer six examples of what they consider militarization of China’s artificial islands: rotating or basing armed Coast Guard and maritime law enforcement vessels, the regular rotation of military aircraft, the rotation or regular stationing of PLAN warships at port facilities, the deployment of advanced missiles, the stationing of amphibioU.S. forces capable of seizing disputed features, or aircraft, and prepositioning ammunition and other war-fighting material.  They conclude ‘(r)otational fighter or medium-range missile deployments constitute militarization  in the third degree’.[43]
Valencia also raises what he calls ‘the bigger picture’ about U.S. military activities in the South China Sea such deployment of Poseidon aircraft, increased military presence in the region, access to military bases in the Philippines, and ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (freedom of navigation patrols). Valencia argues that ‘(b)oth China and the United States are “militarizing” the South China Sea in each other’s eyes. What is clear is that ‘militarization: means different things to different nations’. He concludes ‘(c)ountries that accU.S.e others of it should define specifically what they mean. The U.S. should specify what it is that China is doing – not what it may do – that others have not’.
As noted above, China argues that its ‘land reclamation’ is no different from what the other claimants have undertaken and defensive measures should not be confU.S.ed with militarization. The next part examines what China and the other claimant states have done on the features they currently occupy in the Spratly islands.

Part 3 Construction Activities by the Claimant States

In 2014-15, the Spratly islands became the focU.S. of attention due to China’s rapid construction of artificial islands on submerged features (low tide elevations) and rocks in close proximity to other features occupies by the Philippines and Vietnam. China alone occupies the Paracel Islands and has gradually built up military facilities there since the 1950s.
China currently occupies eight rocks and low tide elevations in the South China Sea – Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, South Johnston Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Eldad Reef.
In 2015, in the space of eight months, China transformed Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu) into a 2.65 square kilometre artificial island that is now the largest feature in the Spratly islands. The infrastructure on Fiery Cross include seawalls, concrete roads, military barracks, a multi-story tower, a harbor, helipads, an airfield and early warning radar.[44] The 3,300 metre long airfield that can U.S.ed by most support and combat aircraft in the PLAN and PLA Air Force inventory.[45] The airfield became operational in January 2016 when China conducted three test flights by and AirbU.S. 319 and a Boeing 737 civilian passenger aircraft.[46]
The harbor can accommodate the PLAN’s largest warships, such as the Type-071 Landing Platform Dock. In AugU.S.t 2015, a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon observed ‘a lot of surface traffic’ including PLAN warships and China Coast Guard with air search radar.[47] Fiery Cross provides easy access to deep waters (2,000m) that are ideal for submarine traffic.
According to a Chinese Civil Aviation Administration official, ‘(t)he airport will serve as an aviation hub in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and will offer convenience for goods and personnel transportation and emergency medical care in Yongshu Reef and adjacent areas’.[48] Chinese media reported that a number of government agencies - including fishing, maritime affairs, search and rescue, scientific research, environmental protection, tourism and garbage disposal - will be set up on Fiery Cross Reef.[49]In sum, Fiery Cross is fast emerging as a combined naval-air base and operational headquarters for Chinese military ships and aircraft in the Spratly islands.[50]
China erected a structure on Subi Reef in the 1990s more than a decade before it began converting the reef into an artificial island in 2014. By 1997, Subi Reef hosted satellite communications and a helipad; a radome was identified in 2011.[51] The 3,000 metre airfield is now operational.
China took possession of Mischief Reef, a low tide elevation, in 1995 and promptly built a small covered platform on stilts. In October 1998 China added three octagon-shaped structures and two two-story concrete towers that bristle with satellite communications and High Frequency antennae. It is likely the towers hoU.S.e electronic intelligence equipment and radar. China later built two piers and a helipad, and installed navigational radar and anti-aircraft guns. In September 2015 China commenced preparatory work on constructing a 3,000 metre long concrete airstrip, its third in the Spratlys.[52] In July 2016 the airfield became operational with the test flight of a civilian aircraft.
Each of China’s three airfields are much larger than the airstrips maintained by Malaysia (1,368 m), Taiwan (1,195 m), the Philippines (1,000 m), and Vietnam (500m). With the exception of Vietnam, all the runways in the South China Sea will be able to accommodate jet fighters; but only China will be able to operate bombers.[53]
China has transformed Johnson South, Cuarteron, Hughes and Gaven reefs into artificial islands on which it has constructed reinforced sea walls, gun emplacements, docks, helipads, radomes, towers, and multistory buildings.[54] In 2015 satellite imagery of Johnson South revealed the presence of two PLAN frigates.[55]
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2013 China upgraded facilities at two outposts and installed communications equipment on multiple outposts. However, between 2014-15 China paved roads on most of its features, installed a solar array on one outpost, built a large port facility on one outpost, constructed buildings and piers on four outposts, completed a 3,000 km runway on Fiery Cross Reef, and established intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure on most outposts.[56]
Vietnam occupies twenty-one features in the Spratlys of which nine are above water at high tide and twelve are low tide elevations on which Vietnam has erected structures.[57] Vietnam has posted People’s Army of Vietnam Navy personnel to thirty-three garrisons. Some features host more than one garrison. Six civilian hoU.S.eholds are located on Vietnamese features in the Spratlys.
United States officials claim that Vietnam has forty-eight outposts in the Spratlys. This discrepancy may be explained by eighteen platforms or technical support services structures (nha gian dich vu yy thuat) that Vietnam has erected in Vanguard Bank (Tu Chinh). Vietnam does not consider Vanguard Bank part of the Spratly islands.
Vietnam’s largest feature, Spratly Island (Dao Truong Sa Lon), has a total land area of 150,000 square metres. It a fishing port, a 500 metre airstrip, a meteorological station, medical clinic and classrooms.
In late 2014/early 2015 Vietnam began converting Corwallis South Reef into small artificial islands by shifting sand and dredging the seabed to enlarge the channel into the reef’s lagoon.[58] By AugU.S.t 2015 Vietnam created a land area of 16,000 square metres and began laying the foundations for several buildings. The pre-existing infrastructure on Corwallis South Reef consists of several pillboxes, four buildings, four docks, solar panels, communications antenna and satellite dishes.
According to Minister of National Defence General Quang Thanh speaking in mid-2015, Vietnam recently reinforced embankments on some of its Spratly features that are above water at high tide to prevent erosion by wind and water. Minister Thanh also stated that Vietnam only built small that can accommodate a few people on its low tide elevations. He claimed, ‘(t)he scope and characteristic of our work is purely civilian’ [59]
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, between 2009 and 2015, Vietnam improved the civilian infrastructure on five outposts, installed communications and radar equipment on fifteen outposts, made point defence improvements on eighteen outposts and carried out quality of life improvements on nineteen outposts. The Defense Department reports that the only infrastructure improvements carried out from 2011-2015 were the construction of helipads on six outposts.[60]
The Philippines
‘The Philippines occupies eight reefs and islands in the Spratlys, the largest of which is Pag-asa (Thitu) that has a 1,000 metre runway. According to the U.S. Defense Department, the Philippines constructed support buildings at four outposts, and cleared a road around Thitu island in 2013. However, between 2009 and 2015 the Philippines made no visible improvements to its communications, maritime domain awareness or defensive infrastructure.[61]
Malaysia occupies seven features in the South China Sea.[62] In 1983 the Royal Malaysian Navy took possession of Swallow Reef (Pulau Layang-Layang) and set up a naval station that is protected by anti-ship guns and the Starburst anti aircraft defence system. Malaysia has also developed Swallow Reef into a tourist resort for scuba diving.[63] Swallow Reef is serviced by a 1,368 metre concrete runway, two hangars, radar, and an air traffic control tower.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, Malaysia made no visible improvements to its communications, maritime domain awareness or defensive infrastructure between 2009 and 2015. In 2013 Malaysia erected new buildings, water storage facilities, and refurbished two air hangars at Swallow Reef.[64]
Before China’s construction of artificial islands Taiwan occupied the largest land feature in the Spratlys, Itu Aba island (Taiping) and one smaller feature. Itu Aba was found to be a rock by the Arbitral Tribunal that announced its award on 12 July 2016. It is entitled to a 12 nm territorial sea but not a 200 nm ExclU.S.ive Economic Zone.
Itu Aba is administered by the Coast Guard that replaced regular soldiers in 2000. The island is protected by machine guns, 81mm and 210mm mortars, and 40mm anti-aircraft guns. The island has a 1,195 metre long runway and limited port facilities.[65]
According to the U.S. Defense Department Taiwan installed solar arrays on Itu Aba in 2013 and the following year began construction of a new pier and new buildings.[66] When construction is completed Itu Aba will have port capable of accommodating 3,000 tonne naval frigates and Coast Guard cutters. The runway is also being improved for U.S.e by Hercules C-130 transport planes. Itu Aba will continue to serve as a support base for Taiwanese deep-sea fishermen and marine and mineral research.[67]

Part 4 Conclusion: Implications for Regional Security

Under the Obama Administration’s policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, the United States has increased its military presence in the South China Sea by deploying Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore, staging Poseidon P-8A reconnaissance flights out the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore and over flights by B-52 bombers. According to Admiral Harris ‘(e)verything that is new and cool is going to the Pacific’ such as F-35s, DD-1000s, a Ford-class nuclear aircraft carrier, V-22 Ospreys and P-8A Poseidons.[68]
There is a crucial difference, however, between U.S. military deployments and the rotational presence of its armed forces and Chinese military activities. All U.S. activities are at the consent of regional states except freedom of navigation operational patrols. The same holds true for visiting military forces, ships and aircraft whose visits, port calls and rotations fall under the sovereign jurisdiction of the host country. The United States operates from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines at the consent of their governments.
U.S. forces in the Philippines come under the authority of a bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement signed on 9 October 1998.[69] In 2015, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that the bilateral Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement was constitutional. Long-standing U.S. military exercises with regional states under the Cooperation Afloat and Readiness and Training program are bilateral and are focU.S.ed on capacity-building and cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In recent years small-scale amphibioU.S. drills have been carried out by U.S. and Philippine armed forces.
While China claims it does not interfere with freedom of navigation and over flight, its actions indicate otherwise. China does not interfere with international commercial shipping that passes through the South China Sea. But China does interfere with freedom of navigation of foreign military ships and aircraft by warning them they are entering a military security zone and threatening the safety of Chinese forces.
According to Admiral Swift routine commercial shipping that had sailed freely through international shipping lanes in the South China Sea were being diverted from areas close to China’s artificial islands. In addition, military operations in the South China Sea also had become subject to warnings to such an extent that China’s ‘unilateral assertiveness’ was becoming ‘unacceptable’.[70]
Further, according to Admiral Swift, fishermen from the region were ‘intimidated by the manner in which some navies, coast guards and maritime military enforce claims in contested waters, fishermen who trawled the seas freely for generations are facing threats to their livelihoods imposed by nations with unresolved and often unrecognized claims’.[71] Although China was not mentioned by name, his reference to ‘some navies’ referred to China.
In addition, the PLAN has stepped up its annual military exercises in the South China Sea. According to a study by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet conducted two operations between 2007-09, the PLAN’s North and South Sea Fleets conducted one operation each between 2010-12 and eight operations between 2013-14.[72] In late 2015, China conducted large-scale naval exercises that included war games that simulated long-distance assaults and landing operations. Other war games included live fire drills by surface ships simulating attacks on submarines.[73] In 2016, in anticipation of the Award by the Artificial Tribunal hearing Philippine claims against China, China staged military exercises in the waters between the southeast coast of Hainan Island and the Paracels. China also announced the regular commencement of military air patrols over the Spratlys, including bombers.
There are seven major implications arising from the militarization of the South China Sea.
First, the commitment by China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who signed the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), to ‘exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability’ has been overtaken by China’s construction of artificial islands. ASEAN’s recent efforts to get China’s concurrence on operationalizing the DOC’s claU.S.e mentioning ‘among other’ activities has not been taken up. The DOC does not explicitly mention constructing artificial islands and China has driven large dredging vessels through this loophole.
Second, all the artificial islands that China has constructed were subject to the award issued by the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the case of The Philippines v China on 12 July.[74]
The Tribunal ruled that none of the land features in the South China Sea, including Taiwan’s Itu Aba (Taiping), were islands as defined by UNCLOS Article 121 and therefore were not entitled to a 200 nautical mile ExclU.S.ive Economic Zone (EEZ) or an extended continental shelf.  The Arbitral Tribunal examined the statU.S. of land features raised by the Philippines and found that Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef (North), Johnson Reef, McKennan Reef and Scarborough Shoal were rocks and entitled to a twelve nautical mile territorial sea but not a 220 nm EEZ. The Tribunal also found that Gaven Reef (South), Hughes Reef, Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal and Subi Reef were low tide elevations. As low tide elevations these features were not entitled to any maritime zones and were not subject to appropriation. In other words China could not claim them as its sovereign territory.
One major implication of the Tribunal’s finding on the statU.S. of features was that both Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal fell within the Philippines’ EEZ and there was no overlap with the maritime entitlements of Chinese-occupied rocks. Therefore, the Tribunal found that China’s construction of structures and installations on Mischief Reef was not authorized by the Philippines. In addition, the Tribunal found that hydrocarbon rich Reed Bank was a submerged reef formation that fell within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The Tribunal found that it did not have jurisdiction to decide on Philippine complaints about China’s investment (in a military sense) of Second Thomas Shoal where the Philippines beached the BRP Sierra Madre in 1999 in order to stake out its sovereignty claims. The Tribunal found that Chinese activities, such as interrupting supply to Second Thomas Shoal, were “military activities” and thU.S. fell outside its purview.
China refU.S.ed to participate in the deliberations of the Arbitral Tribunal and after the award was issued declared it was ‘null and void’ and that China would not be bound by it. Since the Arbitral Tribunal has now power of enforcement, and ASEAN is divided on the issued, the result is that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, widely regarded as the constitution for the world’s oceans, has been undermined as a legal basis for peace and security in the South China Sea,
Third, China has repeatedly stated that the artificial islands will provide a range of civilian support services and public goods such as improvements of the living conditions of personnel stationed on the artificial islands, marine search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, meteorological observation, and navigational aids. As China completes building the infrastructure for these services and assigns personnel to carry them out, China will also provide ‘some necessary military facilities’ to defend its interests.
If China stations military helicopters, mobile artillery batteries, amphibioU.S. ships it will be able to exert pressure on claimants to withdraw and China will have greater capability to dislodge claimants from their features.  .[75]
Admiral Harris, for example, has observed, ‘(w)hen one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states… and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors – well it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raise serioU.S. questions about Chinese intentions’.[76]
An increased Chinese military presence will result in further Chinese actions to exclude intrU.S.ions into the maritime area surrounding its artificial islands. Regional fishermen, who have already felt the brunt of Chinese actions to exclude them from the area, will come under increased pressure. In addition, China’s beefed up military presence will improve its capacity to intercept and ward off military vessels and aircraft from the Philippines and Vietnam. China has already ventured further south and brought similar pressure to bear on Malaysia and Indonesia. This can be expected to continue.
Fourth, China has always held in reserve the right to establish an Air Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. Victor Robert Lee argues, Chinese artificial island bases ‘will likely serve to constrain the activities of competing militaries in the region, and appear more than adequate to support air traffic monitoring and enforcement in the event China were to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea’.[77]
In some senses a nascent ADIZ already exists as noted by senior U.S. Navy admirals. Chinese Navy personnel, both on Fiery Cross Reef and on PLAN warships constantly challenge over flights by foreign military aircraft including from the Philippines, AU.S.tralia and the United States. If China deploys jet fighters and surface-to-air missiles to the airfields on its artificial islands it will enhance its capacity to enforce its ADIZ.
Fifth, China’s unilateral drive to secure control over the South China Sea and the U.S. policy of military rebalancing already have created a security dilemma. Each perceives the actions of the other as inherently threatening. The United States has stated that it intends to step up the scope and complexity of its FONOPs. The U.S. may also enlist the support of Japan and AU.S.tralia to join it in asserting freedom of navigation and over flight. China has countered that it will take appropriate action in response. As the China-U.S. security dilemma intensifies, it will raise the probability of incidents leading to serioU.S. tactical miscalculations and even conflict.
Sixth, if and when China decides to undertake actions at the higher end of the militarization scale – deploying tactical military aircraft, missiles, amphibioU.S. forces and warships – this will alter the naval balance of power over time. Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross will enable force projection and reduce the time for PLAN aircraft and warships to reach the Malacca Straits. In sum, China will be able to sU.S.tain larger naval deployments in the Spratly islands and lower reaches of the South China Sea for longer periods than at present.
Once China has completed its construction activities on its artificial islands and consolidated its network of radars and electronic intelligence systems, it will have an enhanced capacity for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and maritime domain awareness on a 24/7 basis. This network will support the deployment of surveillance aircraft, airborne early warning and control, unmanned aircraft, transport planes, tanker aircraft, fighters, and bombers.
The naval balance in the South China Sea will shift over time as China’s capability to observe and respond to U.S. military operations in region is significantly increased. U.S. military forces will be held at risk further from China than at present.
One of the most strategically worrying developments would be the development of facilities on Fiery Cross Reef to support the basing of conventional and nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines would have quick access to the nearby deep waters. As Lee has noted, deep waters near all of the eight reefs are viable channels for submarines of all navies. The PLAN can be expected to deploy fixed ocean floor acoU.S.tic arrays and well as to support other forms of air, maritime and anti-submarine surveillance’.[78]
Seventh, ASEAN ‘s professed goal of remaining central to the region’s security architecture and guardian of Southeast Asia’s regional autonomy is now under serioU.S. doubt as a result as a result of the debacle at the Special China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Kunming on 25 June 2016[79] and the lack of consensU.S. evident at the 49th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting jU.S.t held in Vientiane. may well remain a  putative community in coming years but ASEAN unity could be fractured at states individually decide to accommodate to China’s rise or balance against China. This would undermine the political-security pillar one of the three pillars on which the ASEAN Community is based.

[1] This paper draws on Carlyle A. Thayer, ‘New Model of Major Power Relations: China-U.S. Global Cooperation and Regional Contention’, Presentation to International Conference on ASEAN and China–U.S. Relations: New Security Dynamics and Regional Implications, co-sponsored by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Sheraton Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam, March 10, 2016 and Carlyle A. Thayer, “The Militarisation of the South China Sea,” in Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2016: Key Developments and Trends  (London and Singapore: International Institute of Security Studies, 2016), 55-72.
[2] Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, quoted in ‘China Accuses US of Militarizing South China Sea’, Voice of America News, 30 July 2015,
[3] Ibid.
[4] Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Pennington, ‘Pentagon chief criticizes Beijing’s South China Sea moves’, Associated Press, 30 May 2015,
[5] ‘Land reclamation’ is an inaccurate yet widely used term. China is not recovering land that has been eroded by wind and sea. See Carl Thayer, ‘No, China is Not Reclaiming Land in the South China Sea’, The Diplomat, 7 June 2015,
[6] David Alexander, ‘Pentagon chief urges end to island-building in South China Sea’, Reuters, 28 May 2015,
[7] Dr. Ashton Carter, United States Secretary of Defense, ‘The United States and Challenges to Asia-Pacific Security’, IISS-Shangri-La Dialogue First Plenary Section, 14th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 30 May 2015,
[8] Quotations in this paragraph are taken from Kevin Baron, ‘China’s New Islands Are Clearly Military, U.S. Pacific Chief Says’, Defense One, 24 July 2015,
[9] ‘China Accuses US of Militarizing South China Sea’, Voice of America News, July 30, 2015.
[10] Jim Sciutto, ‘Behind the scenes: A secret Navy flight over China's military buildup’, 26 May 2015,
[11] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Beijing says building has stopped in South China Sea, but tensions remain at ASEAN’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2015,
[12] David Brunnstrom and Trinna Leong, ‘Kerry raises South China Sea concerns with China’s Wang’, Reuters, 5 August 2015,
[13] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘South China Sea island-building tensions rise at ASEAN talks’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 2015,
[14] Murdoch, ‘South China Sea island-building tensions rise at ASEAN talks’, and Matthew Lee and Eileen Ng, Associated Press, ‘US, China bicker over territorial claims in South China Sea’, The Courier, 5 August 2015,
[15] Jeremy Page, Carol E. Lee and Gordon Lubold, ‘China’s President Pledges No Militarization in Disputed Islands’, The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2015.
[16] Quoted in Yeganeh Torbati and Trinna Leong, ‘ASEAN defense chiefs fail to agree on South China Sea statement,’ Reuters, 4 November 2015,; and Simon Thompson, ‘Asean summit: Ends up without statement amid South China Sea row’, Recorder Press, 19 November 2015.
[17] Quoted in Lisa Ferdinando, ‘Carter Reiterates Call for Peaceful Resolution in South China Sea’, US Department of Defense News, 4 November 2015,; and  Thompson, ‘Asean summit: Ends up without statement amid South China Sea row’.
[18] Quoted in Li Ruohan, ‘FM slams Carter carrier visit in South China Sea’, Global Times, 6 November 2015,
[19] Ibid.
[20] Michael D. Shear, ‘Obama Calls on Beijing to Stop Construction in South China Sea’, The New York Times, 18 November 2015,; and Deutsche Press Agentur. ‘Obama: 'Militarization' of South China Sea Must Stop’, 18 November 2015,
[21] Bill Geertz. “War of words over South China Sea militarization heats up.” Asia Times, 30 November 2015. The following quotations in this paragraph are taken from this source.
[22] Xinhua, ‘China’s construction on South China Sea islands should not be mistaken for militarization: Vice FM’,, 22 November 2015,
[23] Ibid.
[24] David Brunnstrom and Trinna Leong’, China says has stopped reclamation work in South China Sea’, Reuters, 5 August 2015,
[25] Ibid.
[26] Bill Geertz. “War of words over South China Sea militarization heats up.” Asia Times, 30 November 2015. The following quotation is taken from this source.
[27] Jeremy Page and Gordon Lubold, ‘U.S. Bomber Flies Over Waters Claimed by China’, The Wall Street Journal, 18 December 2015,
[28] Editorial, ‘US actions prompt islands militarization’, Global Times, 21 December 2015. Other references in this paragraph are from this source.
[29] Reuters, “’China Says South China Sea Militarization Depends on Threat’, Jakarta Globe, 4 February 2016,
[30] Shannon Tiezzi, ‘China Rejects Latest US FONOP in the South China Sea’, The Diplomat, 2 February 2016,
[31] Lucas Tomlinson and Yonat Friling, ‘Exclusive: China sends surface-to-air missiles to contested island in provocative move’, Fox News, 17 February 2016,; Editorial, ‘HQ-9 missile prompted by US threat’, Global Times, 19 February 2016,; and Zhang Yunbi, ‘US warships incursion “aims to renew tension”’, China Daily USA, 1 February 2016,
[32] Vasudevan Sridharan, ‘Beijing deploys several fighter jets on South China Sea’s Woody Island’, International Business Times, 24 February 2016,
[33] Bill Geertz, ‘Pentagon Concerned by Chinese Anti-Ship Missile Firing’, Washington Free Beacon, 30 March 2016,
[34] Lucas Tomlinson and Yonat Friling, ‘Chinese fighter jets seen on contested South China Sea island, evidence of Beijing’s latest bold move’, Fox News, 12 April 2016,
[35] Quoted in Simon Denyer, ‘U.S. to have “very serious conversation” with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment’, The Washington Post, 17 February 2016.
[37] Republic of the Philippines, Department of Foreign Affairs, ‘Secretary del Rosario Expresses Concern Over “Militarization” of the South China Sea’, 30 June 2013,
[38] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, quoted in Mark Valencia, ‘Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea?’, The Diplomat, 20 December 2015.
[40] I Valencia, ‘Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea?’
[41] Quoted in Jeremy Page, Carol E. Lee and Gordon Lubold, ‘China’s President Pledges No Militarization in Disputed Islands’, The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 201,
[42] Mira Rapp-Hooper and Patrick Cronin, ‘American Strategy in the South China Sea: Time to Define “Militarization” and “Coercion”’, The National Interest, 23 September 2015
[43] Ibid.
[44] Jim Sciutto, ‘Exclusive: China Warns U.S. surveillance plane’, CNN Politics, 15 September 2015,
[45] Victor Robert Lee and DigitalGlobe, ‘China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update’, 15 March 2015,
[46] Kristine Kwok and Zhuaang Pinghu, ‘Chinese military aircraft likely to land at new airport in disputed area of South China Sea in coming months, says ex-PLA officer’, South China Morning Post, 8 January 2016.
[47]Sciutto, ‘Exclusive: China Warns U.S. surveillance plane’.
[48]Kwok and Pinghu, ‘Chinese military aircraft likely to land at new airport in disputed area of South China Sea in coming months, says ex-PLA officer’.
[50] James C. Bussert and Bruce A. Elleman, People’s Liberation Army Navy: Combat Systems and Technology, 1949-2010 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011), p. 144.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘Airstrips Near Completion’, January 2016.
[53] Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘Air Power in the South China Sea’, 2015.
[54] Lee and DigitalGlobe, ‘China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update’ and Josh Rogin, ‘U. S. Misses Real Threat of China's Fake Islands’, Bloomberg View, 2 April 2015,
[55] Lee and DigitalGlobe, ‘China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update’, and Rogin, ‘U. S. Misses Real Threat of China's Fake Islands’,
[56] U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy (2015),
[57] ‘Danh sach cac dao do Viet Nam kiem soat o quan dao Truong Sa’ (List of islands controlled by Vietnam in the Spratly Islands), and Address to the National Assembly by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung quoted in Tien Dung and Nguyen Hung, ‘Viet Nam doi chu quyen Hoang Sa bang hoa binh (Vietnam Claims the Spratlys Are in a Peaceful State)’, VNExpress, 25 November 2011; \
[58] Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, ‘Washed Away: Typhoon Melor Spotlights Vietnamese Island Building’, December 2015.
[59] David Alexander, ‘Vietnam, U.S. Discuss Land Reclamation In South China Sea’ Reuters, 2 June 2015.
[60] U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.
[61] U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.
[62] Mohd Nizam Basiron, ‘Malaysia’s Maritime Challenges and Opportunities: The Search for Sustainability and Security’, in Joshua Ho and Sam Bateman (eds), Maritime Challenges and Priorities in Asia: Implications for Regional Security (London: Routledge Press, 2012), 73-75.
[63] Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, ‘Before and After: The South China Sea Transformed,’18 February 2015.
[64] U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.
[65] Lee and DigitalGlobe, “China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update.”
[66] U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.
[67] Michael Gold and Greg Torode, “As Taiwan beefs up prized South China Sea outpost, barely a peep from China,” Reuters, May 25, 2015.
[68] John Grady, “PACOM CO Harris: More U.S. South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Missions Are Coming,” USNI News, January 27, 2016.
[70] ‘U.S. Pacific Fleet commander says militarization in South China Sea is “unacceptable”’, Honolulu Star Advertiser, 15 December 2015,
[71] Ibid.
[72] Christopher H. Sharman, ‘China Moves Out: Stepping Stones Toward a New Maritime Strategy’, China Strategic Perspectives, Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2015.
[73] ‘Disagreements over the South China Sea worsen as China digs in’, The Economist, 26 November 2015. and Bill Geertz. ‘War of words over South China Sea militarization heats up’, Asia Times, 30 November 2015.
[74] This section is based on Carlyle A. Thayer, ‘The Role of Arbitration in the Settlement of Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea’, Presentation to the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, Legal Issues Relating to Awards of the Arbitral Tribunal Established Under Annex VII of UNCLOS 1982, organized by the University of Law Ho Chi Minh City and the Vietnam Lawyers’ Association, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, 23 July 2016.
[75] Bonnie Glaser, “Growing Militarization of the South China Sea,” Real Clear Defense, July 30, 2015.
[76] Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Canberra, Australia 31 March 2015.
[77] Victor Robert Lee and DigitalGlobe, “China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update,” March 15, 2015.
[78] Lee and DigitalGlobe, ‘China’s New Military Installations in the Disputed Spratly Islands: Satellite Image Update’.
[79] Carl Thayer, ‘The ASEAN-China Special Meeting Mystery: Bureaucratic Snafu or Chinese Heavy-Handedness?’, The Diplomat, June 17, 2016, and Carl Thayer, ‘Revealed: The Truth Behind ASEAN's Retracted Kunming Statement’, The Diplomat, June 19, 2016,

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