Recent events related to the South China Sea (SCS) reveal Chinese thinking about its maritime strategy in that important area. First, China believes that establishing sub-regional hegemony is achievable. Second, it has a coherent maritime strategy with a two-pronged approach: modernizing and restructuring its military to allow for naval power projection, along with consolidating diplomatic and economic relations with ASEAN. Restructuring the military is in sync with China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative as they require a strong blue-water navy to protect China’s expanding overseas maritime interests. Simultaneously, a strong navy with asymmetrical capabilities can mitigate U.S. military technological advantages, keeping it at a distance from China’s territorial expansion in the SCS.
China is conducting reclamation work on seven of the reefs it occupies: Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Gaven, Johnson South, McKennan, Mischief and Subi Reef. Under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these are “low-tide elevations” that don’t warrant a twelve-mile territorial zone. China is building military facilities, in particular airstrips, on three of these islands and can install radars and air defense missiles. The potential militarization of these artificial islands has created anticipation in the region of the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the SCS similar to the one declared by China in the East China Sea in November 2013. Many fear an ADIZ would provide the basis for China’s air control over the Spratly Islands and could constrain U.S. operations in that area.