China’s astonishing expansion into the South China Sea’s nearly 3.5 million square km and its subsequent militarization of the region over the past several years has cultivated a complex security environment. The initial phase of that growing complexity was predicated on geopolitical interest and expansion, notably during U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office.
Although it has been argued that regional tensions may remain stable because China has ceased its land acquisition endeavors to the south, the complex regional security environment may enter into a new phase of heightened tension and complexity during 2019. This next phase could emerge as a result of China’s dedicated push to consolidate its gains in the South China Sea through the use of military and political powers in tandem with sharp threats as a result of military patrols and a quantum leap in the deployment of surveillance aircraft, guided-missile destroyers and a bank of military equipment.
Despite a momentary lull in adding to its treasure trove of South China Sea features, China’s behavior in the South China Sea exemplifies the aim of achieving regional dominance. However, Beijing has yet to achieve the level of control it seeks over the strategically vital waterway. In a region where five other parties — Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan — have made territorial claims, China’s position remains under pressure and its territorial assets under continued threat.
Indeed, Beijing’s outcry over what it sees as provocative U.S. incursions, which China has treated as naked military aggression, serves as a strong indication that China’s assets in the South China Sea and the country’s interests in the region remain vulnerable. So long as external threats persist, acquisition and buildup can be expected to move forward.
With China’s initial island-building campaign nearly 10 years old, the next phase of China’s South China Sea expansion is the consolidation and military fortification of its territorial assets — garrisoning the many tiny islets once deemed uninhabitable, including the strategic Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Dao), lying just 225 km west of the large Philippine island of Luzon and currently under development. The establishment of military bases has culminated in the creation of China’s “strategic triangle.” Even with the construction of aircraft bases, detection systems and weapon delivery systems, the impact of China’s methodical efforts in the South China Sea have failed to yield considerable change in the status quo of power relations.
Over the past several years, China has expanded existing reefs and atolls by thousands of hectares, but its military presence and preparedness still fall short of a level adequate for claiming control over the entire South China Sea. The process is likely to be a much longer one than expected. Islet acquisition and development has not mitigated existing territorial claims by other states sharing the sea, nor are those claims — supported by distant partners and allies — likely to disappear in the near or distant future.
A combination of three factors exponentially raises the potential for further militarization in the South China Sea: China’s past expansion and continuing consolidation, which clash with persistent claims by states situated adjacent to the South China Sea; Washington’s declaration that the freedom of navigation principle of customary international law should be preserved; and Beijing’s departure from past promises not to further develop its South China Sea assets.
Civilian and rescue operations have been the main justification for the ongoing construction of military installations and the placement of weapons and weapon systems, including sophisticated combat aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and jamming technology, in spite of President Xi Jinping’s guarantee that China’s territorial assets would not be militarized. Beijing has indicated that future United Nation’s peacekeeping missions involving the People’s Liberation Army would necessitate additional bases. These steps are key to strengthening China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capacity.