Beijing’s missile deployments in the South China Sea

Whither the Code of Conduct?

Koh Swee Lean Collin

International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

11 January 2017

Can a form of arms control succeed in stopping the increasing militarisation of the South China Sea, or is the proposed Code of Conduct doomed to fail, Koh Swee Lean Collin asks.

Quoting US officials, Fox News on 23 December 2016 revealed that China had deployed more surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to the South China Sea. While Hainan Island is not part of the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, it is believed that the missiles would eventually end up on some of those contested features. Earlier last year, the same news outlet also reported China’s deployment of the HQ-9 SAM batteries to Hainan Island.

Old-fashioned, manually-operated anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapon systems specially designed to counter enemy frogmen or saboteurs had already been observed permanently emplaced on the disputed features, just not missile systems thus far. Though it must be pointed out: the Chinese could have already deployed easily concealable hand-held SAMs despite the paucity of evidence so far. If deployed, long-range SAMs in the Spratlys or at least Woody Island (part of the Paracels) would further tilt the military balance towards Beijing and away from other claimants. However, deployment of missiles itself poses a problematic issue that begs some important questions.

First, is the missile system defensive? Long-range systems are usually associated with an offensive posture. But functionally, SAMs are designed to defend against incoming aircraft and missiles. In other words, SAMs are shields, not swords. This is especially so for hand-held SAMs which are handicapped by short ranges and only effective against slower, low-flying aircraft. Typically, hand-held SAMs have ranges well within the 12-nautical mile sovereign airspace (that is if international law entitles the disputed feature to one).

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But long-range SAMs such as the HQ-9 blur the lines. These systems possess the ability to threaten foreign aircraft beyond the sovereign airspace, thus imbuing them with an offensive capability. Yet the deployment of long-range SAMs would still be justified by Beijing as defensive, as it did so following a spate of actions it undertook, not least being the building and fortification of artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Second, is permanent deployment necessary considering that modern weapons possess better mobility and countries could muster the means of projecting force further afield? War does not erupt suddenly without a preceding period of tension. It is usually this window, until the first opening shots are fired, during which belligerents would beef up their forces in concerned areas. With better air- and sea-lift capabilities, one can deploy military forces which are prepositioned on standby in the periphery to those adjacent, disputed areas at short notice.

These forces could be deployed on an ad-hoc, temporary basis to the crisis hotspot, even if it is meant only to demonstrate a point to the intended audience. And whenever politically expedient, the forces could be withdrawn back to the periphery, leading to crisis escalation control. It also reduces the forces’ vulnerability that derives from permanent deployment. In the far-flung Spratly Islands, several hundreds of kilometres from the mainland bases, these forces are exposed to quick enemy air and missile attacks.

The crux of the problem about the militarisation of the South China Sea does not lie in whether the weapons are short- or long-range, or whether they are permanently deployed. 3000 metre-long airstrips built on the contested features enable Beijing to exploit the window leading up to potential armed conflict, using its expanding repertoire of airlift assets (such as the indigenously-developed Y-20 strategic air transport) to rapidly deploy such weapons at the onset of a crisis.

Beijing has started to show signs it is moving to desensitise the international community to the regularity of such flights – its recent commencement of regular charter flights from Hainan Island to Woody Island being a case in point.

More on this: Reclaiming Scarborough Shoal: China's evolving military strategy

In fact, prior to that, following the maiden landing of a civilian airliner in January 2016 on Fiery Cross, Beijing announced plans in March to begin regular civilian flights to Woody Island. And in July, Chinese civilian airliners landed on another two artificial islands – Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. These seemingly innocuous civilian flights could presage military airlift operations. Because of their physical profiles, military transport planes bear radar signatures close to those of commercial airliners. This similarity could be further complicated by Beijing’s use of “civilianised” versions of military airlifters, such as the case of the Y-20.

One recalls that in November-December 2015, Moscow deployed S-400 long-range SAMs to Syria using its Antonov An-124 heavy airlifters. Though less powerful than the Russian plane, the Y-20 may suffice for similar deployments to the islands.

What do these developments mean for peace and stability in the South China Sea? For years, claimants have talked about promulgating a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) to ameliorate the potential impact of militarisation. This initiative was first conceived following Beijing’s occupation and subsequent fortification of one of the Spratlys features, Mischief Reef, in the 1990s.

But years of negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Beijing led to a much-watered down version – the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea, signed in November 2002.

Notwithstanding its inherent flaws, the DoC was depicted as a landmark Sino-ASEAN effort to foster peace and stability in the disputed waters. In the years that followed, however, claimants steadily undermined this pact. Recent rising tensions, including steady militarisation of the South China Sea, catalysed the push for the CoC.

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However, the problems that dogged the DoC will continue to exist as talks drag on over the CoC. It is, after all, a typical arms control problem. Contemporary initiatives such as the CoC would be widely termed “confidence-building measures”, but the intended spirit of the CoC is precisely one related to arms control. Two types of arms control are in order: structural and operational. As the most traditional form of arms control, structural measures aim to limit the quantity and type of armaments. The Washington Naval Treaty and subsequent treaties in the Interwar Years are examples of such.

Operational measures, on the other hand, aim not at limiting the quantity and type of armaments but rather the way in which they are employed. This is much less intrusive compared to structural measures and, at least in theory, more readily accepted by parties at the negotiating table. Operational measures include, for instance, military keep-out zones, advance notification of troop movements and weapons deployment and crisis management mechanisms. The CoC can be considered as a form of operational arms control.

That said, operational measures suffer from many of the same problems that afflict structural ones. First, negotiations become longer and more difficult with more parties and their diverse – and possibly conflictual – national interests involved. This could be further complicated by extra-regional involvement. Second, negotiations could be bogged down by technical-operational disagreements over what constitutes defensive or offensive armaments – a subjective issue depending on not just the weapon’s inherent characteristics but also the context in which it is employed. Finally, even if an agreement is made, the same old problem that has long dogged arms control initiatives could endanger its longevity; namely that of compliance, verification and enforcement (CVE).

More on this: Is arming Southeast Asia with strategic impact weapons the answer to the South China Sea?

Bearing the abovementioned issues concerning arms control in mind, it is not difficult to see what the ad-hoc, temporary deployment of weapons to the disputed South China Sea waters implies for the CoC. Parties could simply sidestep the document by permanently deploying low-capability weapons such as anti-aircraft guns to the disputed features. At the same time, they could maintain heavier, more offensive armaments on standby in the peripheral areas, ready to deploy them at short notice to those features in times of tensions.

Such activities could be more easily disguised as normal peacetime activities within legitimate national boundaries, while not necessarily lending themselves to accusations about militarising the South China Sea.

Legally binding or not, there are many uncertainties in store for the CoC. Beijing’s recent missile deployments highlight those persistent “wicked problems” faced by arms control theorists and practitioners, and such activities would only serve to further complicate efforts to roll back or at least arrest the trend towards militarisation in the South China Sea.

There is a political push among several parties (counting those who are possibly only paying lip service to the idea) for this legally-binding CoC to materialise within the coming year. Yet rashly pushing for its promulgation without properly considering the CVE-associated risks would at best stymie the successful conclusion of CoC talks. At worst, if hastily promulgated for reasons of political expediency, this agreement could be doomed to become another major failure in the long history of arms control.

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One Response

  1. Jake Masoc says:

    China should not be there in the first place these illegal military outposts have been deemed illegal by the international court in the Hague. Best the US park their guided missile destroyers 500 meters from these stolen Islands and deny resupply of these refs!~

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