China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea belie its promises of the last five years. Its Foreign Ministry announced in 2013 that its suppression of non-Chinese fishermen was to protect the region’s sensitive marine environment. Since then, it has ripped up 2.4 million hectares of endangered coral reefs to enlarge atolls and islets into artificial islands. More importantly, China has emplaced military facilities and garrisons on those islands just months after President Xi Jinping promised his country would not militarize those islands. His Foreign Ministry has also promised to never use its “sovereignty” over the South China Sea to constrict anyone’s trade or use of the air space over those waters. It is a pattern reminiscent of that seen in Europe during the 30s. Each transgression was promised to be the last but proved simply to be a ploy to lull the international community into complacency. China has followed a path similar to the aggressors of that era, albeit taken more patiently. The ultimate goal, gaining control over the South China, will give Beijing a firm grip over the waters through which 25% of Japan’s and 21% of Taiwan’s currently transits. That potential stranglehold is a concern to those two countries but it also has implications for the international rule of law and freedom of the seas.
Facing growing international opposition to its claims since the International Court denied China de jure sovereignty over the South China Sea, Beijing has initiated a two-pronged approach to gaining de facto authority. First, it has reinforced the garrisons and hardened the facilities on its artificial islands in the Spratly Archipelago and staged aircraft, missiles and naval units to them and the nearby Paracel Islands, which it seized from a collapsing South Vietnam in 1974. However, the weapons and aircraft were withdrawn in the face of international opposition, but the message was clear; those islands can support combat aircraft and both surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles. The radars and other sensor systems are already in place. The buildup of logistics and maintenance capabilities to support a permanent deployment probably is already underway. The calculations on when to move the forces there probably are already underway. It will be based on the expected regional and international reaction. In the meantime, China will make further temporary deployments and within the next three years, small scale military exercises ostensibly to ensure it can defend its claims against foreign aggression.
Second, Beijing has initiated increasingly aggressive harassment against American aerial reconnaissance aircraft and naval units flying near or exercising Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in those waters, respectively. Such harassment is new only in that it is directed at the United States. Vietnamese fishing boats and coast guard vessels have been rammed and many of the former sunk by the Chinese Coast Guard. Although the death toll from each incident doesn’t approach the numbers killed by China’s attacks on Vietnamese naval units and unarmed personnel in 1988, it does constitute a violation of international law. Yet, as is the case with the world’s environmental organizations’ blind eye to China’s depredations of the region’s marine habitat, human rights groups remain silent; essentially signaling Vietnamese, and by extension, Southeast Asian lives do not matter. So far, China has not risked interfering with the flight of U.S. combat or transport aircraft. Nor have China’s air and naval units initiated dangerous maneuvering around other Western countries’ naval units exercising their freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. That may change as China’s air and naval power expands in the next decade. However, Beijing will not act suddenly. It is playing the long game, moving gradually and incrementally towards its goal of controlling the South China Sea for its own benefit.
The people of the Philippines remember China’s placing of territorial markers around the islands and islets Manila claimed and the so-called fishing shelters China built on its claimed territories and Mischief Reef 25 years ago. Those fishing shelters were hardened facilities with anti-aircraft artillery, military communications systems, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or “People’s Militia” troops on them by the late 1990s. The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard expended much effort patrolling its waters and removing those markers, but China seized Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal the moment fuel shortage and weather imposed a three-month hiatus in those patrols. The lesson from that is that Beijing moves whenever its leaders think their victims’ attention is elsewhere. Vietnam was the first victim of Chinese aggression followed by the Philippines. Although China’s actions have been more subtle in recent years, it has established a pattern of behavior the other claimants and international community should learn.
The most important question now is what must the international community and regional countries do next. The major powers’ FONOPS play an important role in signaling China’s aggression is unacceptable and its claims rejected. The United States has strengthened its presence in the region and its FONOPS. U.S. units no longer claim “innocent passage” when transiting those waters; a claim that constitutes recognition of territorial sovereignty since warships only conduct innocent passage through territorial waters. They transit freely through international waters and more importantly, can conduct military exercises, maneuvers and training in international waters. In fact, the U.S. and Japan have conducted military exercises in those waters. But, those actions represent only one dimension of the many available to pressure China and more importantly, the exercises lack involvement by the local countries most immediately threatened by Beijing’s activities. That absence makes the international response seem more related to big power games than the defense of international principles and regional concerns.