Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea: 2016 in Review

Background Briefing:
Maritime Disputes in the South
China Sea: 2016 in Review
Carlyle A. Thayer
January 24, 2017
The security situation in the South China Sea in 2016 was shaped by four major
First, China continued to consolidate its military position in the Spratly Islands both
before and after the 12 July award by the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the claims
brought by the Philippines against China. China not only completed the construction
of three 3-kilometer long runways on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs but installed
reinforced hangars with space to accommodate twenty-four fighters and three to four
larger planes such bombers and aerial tankers on each reef Later China added point
defenses on all of its seven features housing anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air
missiles. China also continued improve port and service facilities and installed radar
and solar arrays.
Second, the United States successfully deterred China from building an artificial island
and airfield at Scarborough Shoal in an unprecedented orchestration of military power
and high-level diplomacy
In March United States defense officials reported unusual Chinese surveying activity
around Scarborough Shoal that appeared to be a prelude to a new round of so-called
land reclamation. U.S. and Australian intelligence and analytical agencies later warned
that China was poised to take “decisive and provocative action” such as the
construction of a fourth airfield.
A Chinese airfield on Scarborough Shoal would complete the triangle linking Woody
island in the Paracels with occupied features in the Spratlys and give China the ability
to monitor virtually all aircraft and surface ships passing over or through the South
China Sea.
On 31 March, President Barack Obama reportedly raised this issue in a candid
exchange with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in
Washington, D.C. In April, the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group returned
to the South China Sea. In mid-month the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his
Filipino counterpart Voltaire Gazmin flew out to the Stennis to observe operations and
to announce the commencement of joint naval patrols.
Later in April, the U.S. conducted at least three aerial patrols around Scarborough
Shoal by A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicop-ters
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based in the Philippines. In June. the U.S. deployed four EA-18 Growlers, the world’s
most advanced electronic warfare aircraft, to the Philippines.
In early June the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier replaced the Stennis on patrol
duties. During June-July three U.S. destroyers each conducted independent patrols in
the waters around the Spratly Islands. On 18 June, the two carrier Strike Groups.
Stennis and Reagan, and six warships conducted a large-scale exercise off the east
coast of the Philippines.
Third, China responded to U.S. military initiatives by regularly shadowing and
challenging U.S. warships and maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and by conducting
combat air patrols including nuclear capable bombers over the South China Sea. In
December Chinese sailors seized and then returned a U.S. underwater drone.
In 2016, the U.S. Navy conducted three Freedom of Navigation Operational Patrols
(FNOP). In late January, the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed by Triton Island in the Paracels. In
May, the USS William P. Lawrence conducted a FNOP near Fiery Cross Reef. In
October, the USS Decatur returned to the waters near Triton Island. China responded
to the first FNOP by deploying J-11 fighters and surface-to-air missiles to Woody
Fourth, Vietnam took action to respond to China’s militarization of the Spratlys, while
the Philippines, under the new administration of Rodrigo Duterte, reversed course by
terminating joint patrols with the U.S. and threatening to separate itself from its treaty
ally. During the first half of the year Vietnam reportedly placed EXTRA rocket launchers
on five of its features in the Spratlys. Vietnam also extended the length of its airfield
on Truong Sa Lon island reportedly to deploy maritime patrol aircraft.
Throughout Obama’s two terms in office, the U.S. and China have managed to keep
air and naval encounters in the South China Sea from escalating into armed conflict.
Obama, however, has been criticized as being ineffectual in stopping China’s
militarization of the Spratlys. President Duterte’s opening towards China gives Beijing
every incentive to downplay its military assertiveness in favor of diplomacy. The
election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president, however, raises the level of
strategic uncertainty between China and the United States. It is an open question if
“Trump the winner” will confront China or “Trump the deal maker” will recognize
China’s South China Sea hegemony in exchange for better market access by American
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea 2016
in Review,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 24, 2017. All background
briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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