Trade and industry, International relations, Law, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

26 August 2016

Bharat Karnad analyses China’s strategy in the South China Sea, and proposes a regional military solution, leveraging the power of supersonic cruise missiles, to bring about a durable peace.

China has gone some ways to obtaining by force a mere closum (closed sea) in the waters off Southeast Asia without meeting any real resistance to date. The 11 July verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague may have crimped Beijing’s plans but it has not weakened its resolve.

In this context “closed sea” refers to narrowing the marine trade route by creating mid-sea impediments that channelise sea-borne traffic, then controlling and commanding these sea lanes to serve China’s larger purpose of asserting its dominance in the region. But why should the “narrowing” of the South China Sea be a security concern? Firstly, more than a third of annual global trade, valued at over US $5 trillion, passes through the South China Sea. But also, as the naval historian Milan N. Vego predicts, “most naval actions in the future will most likely take place in relative proximity to the shores of the world’s continental landmass, in areas known as ‘littoral waters’, and part of a war in the littorals would take place in the waters of the enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, the popularly called ‘narrow seas’ ”.

More on this: Is China guilty of the same double standards for which it derides the West? | Alison Pert

China has never made any bones about recovering territory whether on land or at sea even when its claims are based on “historical fiction”. Controlling the South China Sea is central to its “three island chain” strategy. The first island chain encompasses almost all the islands within its ‘nine-dash’ claim line. Having a stranglehold over it, Beijing hopes, will help the PLA Navy consolidate its presence in the second island chain stretching from Papua New Guinea to Japan and into the western Pacific. This then acts as a prelude to extending Chinese military reach and influence to the third island chain, Guam and the Hawaiian islands.

More immediately, however, China is concerned with protecting the waterway that carries the bulk of its seaborne trade. With the Subic Bay naval base located only 120 miles west of the Huangyan Islands (aka Scarborough Shoal), which China forcibly occupied leading Manila in 2013 to approach the Hague Court, Beijing apparently fears that the 2012 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement permitting the US armed forces to stage out of five principal bases and facilities in the Philippines, will imperil its trade and, importantly, by preventing its domination of the South China Sea, nullify its grand plans for maritime supremacy in Asia.

More on this: The destruction beneath the waves of the South China Sea

Ever proactive and, perhaps, anticipating a negative judgement, China created a series of fortified island outposts and “artificial islands” for military use. Cement was poured on coral reefs and on extended rocky protuberances with little regard for environmental damage, and the ground leveled on existing islands in its possession at a furious pace until Beijing had a number of nearly self-sufficient military platforms.

Equipped with lighthouses, helipads that can also serve as airstrips, and solar arrays to generate electricity, China placed not only high-frequency surveillance radars on these islands to monitor surface and air traffic in the extended area, but also guns and HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles. By June, the PLA revealed that as part of its A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy, it had deployed from the mainland its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile systems and H-6K bombers to patrol the contested area. All this happened before the court issued its decree.

The Tribunal rejected outright China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and its equally ambitious notions of exclusive economic zones, declaring unambiguously that it had no jurisdiction whatsoever on resources found within this maritime sphere.

However, each of the artificial islands or “land reclamations” on the seven features in the Spratly Islands group are nevertheless endowed, the Court ruled, with an exclusion zone bounded by a 12 nautical mile territorial sea. These newly constructed military facilities have thus been accorded legitimacy. Beijing has followed up by erecting reinforced hangars for combat aircraft, such as the JH-7A for maritime strikes, on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs. It will enable Chinese naval aviation to mount longer, more frequent and dissuasive sorties by fighter-bomber aircraft.

SCS Claims Map

Photo: Voice of America on Wikimedia


Now consider the grouping of the Chinese bases on “reclaimed” land. Besides the Cuarteron Reef near Malaysia, which hosts a high-powered 300km-range radar to watch over the Malacca Strait opening to the South China Sea, most of the other built-up bases are bunched at the near centre-point of the nine dash claim line curving short of and around the southern Vietnamese, south-central Kalimantan (Indonesia), Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysia) coasts, Brunei, and the southern Philippine islands.

This virtual mid-South China Sea grouping of the island-facilities to house naval and air assets has divided the South China Sea into two narrower seas on either side of the claim line for maritime traffic to negotiate. This will enable China to better police the two channels from the central verge, as it were.

Establishing an instantly available military force, and removing to an extent logistic constraints for first contact operations has, moreover, afforded Beijing an unrivalled capacity to influence politics in the countries on the littoral and offshore. It allows China to dictate terms to its maritime neighbors on numerous issues, tilt conflict or dispute resolution to its advantage, influence trading nations using the now bifurcated oceanic highway, and with the threat of applying the tourniquet to one or both sets of sea lanes, indirectly command a good part of global trade and, generally, dictate the nature of maritime interaction.

And what of the US in all this? While Washington’s rhetoric concerns an armed US presence to ensure a peacefully rising China and a stable Asia, in practical terms the US seeks to avoid conflict. The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group and the flotilla of three missile destroyers (Spruance, Stethem, and Momsen) were pulling freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to “show resolve” around the time the verdict was issued. The US warships, however, took great care when “stalking” these Chinese land reclamations to not violate the territorial sea surrounding them.

More on this: Why the US response to the tribunal’s ruling was not what China analysts anticipated

Such caution was in line with the White House’s admonishment of confrontation-minded US military leaders. On 29 March, General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Chinese activity in the South China Sea as “destabilising” and as posing a danger to commercial trade in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A few weeks later, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, talked of the need to aggressively counter China’s “great wall of sand”.

Rattled by the fighting words, National Security Adviser Susan Rice gagged them. The Obama Administration, however, justified silencing Messrs Dunford and Harris in terms of preserving “maximum political maneuvering space” for itself in talks with the Chinese leadership. Obama’s circumspect policy is despite strong bipartisan support for an assertive course of action.

Admiral John Richardson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, defined this policy of peaceful outreach to Beijing saying, “Cooperation would be great, competition is fine. Conflict is the thing that we really want to avoid.”

An American policy that strains to eliminate the possibility of tension or friction in relations with China is a troubling development for the majority of Asian states. Since the Cold War era Asian nations have been reassured by the US military presence, seeing it as guarantor of their security. An erosion of confidence in America’s will to use force to protect its friends could have far-reaching consequences.

The problem of a weak military commitment is evident beyond the South China Sea. Interested in buttressing his “Prague legacy” Obama is reportedly considering a nuclear ‘No First Use’ policy that Asian allies are desperately lobbying against. This, together with the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald J. Trump urging Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons for self-protection because the US can no longer afford to provide security to them, have the makings of a full-blown security crisis.

More on this: How superpowers set the rules of engagement in the South China Sea | Gavin Briggs

But it is precisely Washington’s disinclination to forcefully contest strategic spaces that China will exploit both to show up the US as an unreliable ally and intimidate Asian states into becoming more amenable. China lost no time after the 11 July verdict, for instance, in conducting a live-fire naval drill and imposing an air defense identification zone in order to test the US response. Washington did not run the gauntlet.

The US unwillingness to stand up to China may convince Asian states to do something themselves, as Beijing has indicated it will ignore the Hague ruling.

But what can Asian states do if the US sits this crisis out? Merely resolving not to be “bullied” will not help. Continuing with the frequent sailings of warships by the periphery powers – the US, India, Japan, and Australia – even if these are not prosecuted as FONOPs, as well as surveillance flights by P-3s out of the Clark AFB in the Philippines and the northern Australian coast, will not hugely discomfit the Chinese military as it has already become familiar with this kind of activity.

A more potent solution that will “reverse China’s strategic gains” is to counter-narrow the same waters for China, meaning, to potentially restrict the freedom of movement of PLA Navy ships and the merchant marine in a like manner to what China has already done. This can be achieved by arming ASEAN members who show the stomach for a fight with China, such as Vietnam, with strategic impact armaments.

More on this: Can China’s loss be India’s gain? | Harsh V Pant

India, for one, has finally appreciated the strategic gains from arming Vietnam with the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. New Delhi has agreed to export it to Hanoi, which is likely to deploy it onboard its corvettes affording Vietnam a mobile offensive capability. The air-launched and submarine-fired Brahmos variants that may follow will give Vietnam enormous operational flexibility and will compel China to alter its plans for the use of force, principally because of the unbearable “exchange ratio” that Beijing faces with the Brahmos. Pitting a cruise missile costing US$10 million against a missile destroyer costing, say, US$600 million-US$800 million will inhibit Chinese fleet commanders from casually courting risk and combatant ship captains from undertaking provocative missions.

In this scenario, China will discover that the artificial island bases it has created can stockpile only so much fuel and war materiel, and the relatively long distance from the mainland to the disputed area can become a military liability when it comes to sustaining naval or air action. After all, the distance between the nearest Philippine island and Scarborough Shoal is one-fifth the distance from the Shoal to the Chinese coast.

More on this: The relationship between China and India is the key strategic challenge of the Indo-Pacific

Further, Vietnam’s success in keeping at bay both the secret Chinese “fourth fleet”, supposedly meant for Indian Ocean forays (which serves India’s security interests), and the powerful South Sea Fleet co-located at the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island will have a domino effect. In fact, anticipating the deterrence potential of the Brahmos, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have already shown interest in it.

With the disputant states and other countries on the Southeast Asian littoral bristling with one shot-one ship kill weapons, which they will now procure from wherever they can as a cost-effective solution, the South China Sea will be effectively narrowed and rendered equally dangerous for the Chinese navy and merchantmen. It will make for a military equilibrium and durable peace in the region, lengthen the fuse for the US, India, Australia, and Japan, and increase their policy options.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

3 Responses

  1. All Atatime says:

    Violence begets violence. China will now arm Pakistan to the teeth. And possible Sri Lanka eventually. Now that is encirclement of India. Why can’t we just talk. Everybody has a price.

  2. Fay L. Dumagat says:

    American policy makers and military leaders have been too engrossed in containing conflicts in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe to protect Israel, to control Russian threat in Eastern and Western Europe and Iranian threat in the Middle East, at the same time insuring the flow of oil from Russia to Europe and Middle East oil to America, Japan and other industrial nations such that it left a power vacuum in Asia which the Chinese exploited for their military control of the Asian Region. Now, the Democratic Party in power in the US like in World War II, is unwilling to confront the Chinese challenge. In the face of this realities, the bigger Asian states like India, Indonesia, and Japan, including Australia and New Zealand must enter the picture to stop China in her aggressive drive to dominate the region. The proliferation of nuclear missiles to small states in Asia and Southeast Asia will be a worse nightmare than nuclear Iran or North Korea. The US cannot hesitate to face off China because it could be

    misinterpreted as weakness by both China and Russia.

  3. Caleb Jones says:

    The Republic of China’s (‘China’)position appears to be that the applicable law for the South China Sea (‘SCS’) predates construction of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (‘UNCLOS’) and that its validity survives the creation of this new maritime legal architecture. China believes that it has valid legal claims under customary international law and could apply forms of historical title and/or historical rights (tantamount possibly to internal waters claim), and the application of which renders conflicting UNCLOS articles moot. Given that UNCLOS was constructed after these rights were already in place, they remain in law historically according to China’s legal opinion.
    The upshot here is that international law does matter for China and enables its foreign policy, but this view is entirely at odds with contemporary opinion. It has been suggested that historical titles and rights were removed or superseded by UNCLOS. Furthermore, the vast majority of international legal experts have concluded that China’s claims based on historical claims are invalid. Many ambiguities arise from the notion of historical claims as a basis for claiming sovereignty and is inherently ambiguous. The first appearance of China’s Nine Dash Line with apparent official Chinese government endorsement was in a government internal atlas in 1947, which was then published as a Chinese atlas in 1948. The nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps encompasses almost the entirety of the SCS but includes no coordinates.
    Of critical importance is the fact that the July 2016 arbitration in the International Court at the Hague which ruled unanimously in favour of the Philippines in its case against China’s extensive claims in the SCS set in motion the ‘legalization of the dispute,’ making law the dominant frame through which all states’ actions have been evaluated. China is now caught within a legalized regional community and its policy has been significantly and materially modified, triggering an intense island reclamation process now underway. There is evidence that China has nearly completed structures intended to house surface to air missile systems on its three largest outposts in the disputed territory as part of a steady pattern of its militarization. Such structures have come up at Fiery Cross reef, Mischief reef and SubiReef, all man made islands dredged by China and are now home to military-grade airfields. China started construction of these buildings in September 2016 and have built eight buildings on each of the three outposts. China claims that these measures are in accordance with the nation’s security requirements and are the legitimate right of a sovereign state.
    Some observers characterize China’s approach for asserting and defending its territorial claims in the SCS as a ‘salami-slicing’ strategy that employs a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favour.
    In essence international law has facilitated policy change by forcing China to act within a tight policy space. China have realised that they need the cover of the law to provide legitimacy and credibility to their maritime claims. Given the industrial capacity of the claimant states (Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam), an aggressive foreign policy grounded in a logic of defensive action has become its most promising action. None of the claimants are in a position to confront China militarily, they look at Washington and other stakeholders who do not have direct involvement in the dispute but respect global rules to come to their rescue to prevail upon China from pursuing such an aggressive approach.
    China’s actions for asserting and defending its maritime territorial and EEZ claims in the SCS raise several potential policy and oversight issues for US Congress, including whether the United States has an adequate strategy for countering China’s ‘salami-slicing’ strategy, whether the U.S. has taken adequate actions to reduce the risk that the U.S. might be drawn into a crisis or conflict over a territorial dispute involving China, and whether the United States should become a party to the UNCLOS.
    In a major development, China and Southeast Asian countries agreed on 18 May 2017 to a draft framework on the outline of a legally binding Code of Conduct (‘COC’) designed to prevent clashes in the SCS. It should be noted that mid-2017 was the timeline set by China and the leaders of ASEAN. The draft framework was agreed upon before that date though details of the contents are not yet revealed and no date has been given for the adoption of a full COC. It should also be noted that fifteen years ago, China and the members of ASEAN had committed to draft a COC but were unable to do so because of differences.
    On August 7 2017 during the 50th ASEAN ministerial meeting — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his counterparts Julie Bishop and Taro Kono met in Manila for the seventh ministerial meeting of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) and jointly issued a statement that included a paragraph demanding that China and the Philippines abide by the 2016 arbitral ruling on the SCS. The statement further addressed China directly: the ministers called on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties. The ministers urged ASEAN member states and China to fully and effectively implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC). After the meeting, in an attempt to tout its cooperation with ASEAN, China was particularly satisfied that the ASEAN states had approved the framework for the COC for the SCS. Yet, even on this ‘positive’ result, the three-country statement had a different opinion: the ministers acknowledged the announced consensus on a framework for the COC for the SCS. The ministers further urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.
    The inability of the ASEAN members to resolve the SCS dispute has been cited as the result of the kind of pressure China has applied on ASEAN leaders. China’s participation in the talks has prevented any real progress, allowing China to continue its activities in the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands without contest from any mutually agreed-upon framework (except the non-binding 2002 declaration).
    It is therefore, of critical importance that a COC be put in place to resolve the dispute in accordance with international law. Until this happens, China will continue to militarize the disputed territories without any consideration of smaller nations who have their own legitimate claims. China will also continue to stall on the COC, which will grant them more time to seal in its advantages in the SCS, with new man-made islands and facilities that can easily be converted or operationalized for military use. Until China is satisfied with its position in the SCS, we may not see real progress on the COC. Unfortunately, that may be years from now.

Back to Top

Press Ctrl+C to copy



Press Ctrl+C to copy


Karnad, Bharat. 2016. "China Narrows The South China Sea - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.