Editor’s Note: This article is based in part on the author’s recent report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea: Strategy Options for the Trump Administration.
The policy of the United States and its close allies in the South China Sea has failed. Repeated statements of limited interest accompanied by occasional ship and aircraft passages have failed to prevent Beijing’s program of island creation, nor have they meaningfully forestalled China’s quest for military dominance in the region.
In seeking to minimize the risk of confrontation at every step, the United States and its allies have effectively ceded control of a highly strategic region and presided over a process of incremental capitulation. Bad precedents have been set, and poor messages have been transmitted to the global community. In parts of the Western Pacific, the allies are in danger of losing their long-held status as the security partners of choice.
Why have Washington and other allied capitals been so flat-footed? Why has it taken so long to develop an effective counter-strategy to Beijing’s island creation and militarization in the South China Sea?
Part of the reason is the way that China has asserted its sovereignty over some 80 percent of this strategic waterway. The South China Sea is a stretch of water that carries more than half of the world’s merchant tonnage and serves as an important transit route for the militaries of the United States and many of its allies and friends. During the last five years, Beijing’s footprint has expanded markedly with the dredging-up of new islands and the construction of facilities for surveillance, anti-air, anti-shipping, and strike forces. Beijing’s campaign has been cleverly conducted via a succession of modest incremental steps, each of which has fallen below the threshold that would trigger a forceful Western response. As a result, Beijing now has significant facilities on 12 islands in the South China Sea and operates by far the largest military, coastguard, and maritime militia presence in the region.
Amongst the military capabilities that the Chinese appear to be installing on these artificial islands are surveillance and intelligence gathering facilities, long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile installations, and numerous missile and gun point-defense systems. Three of the islands in the Spratly group, towards of the middle of the South China Sea, now possess 10,000 foot airfields that are more than adequate to handle Boeing 747 operations. Hardened revetments to house 24 fighter-bomber aircraft are nearing completion on these three islands together with what appears to be extensive maintenance and storage facilities for fuel and other supplies. Aircraft operating from these facilities could range as far as the Andaman Sea, Northern Australia, and Guam.
These newly created islands also appear to have capacities to house, as well as operate at short notice, significant numbers of short-and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles with capabilities to strike both land-based targets and ships at sea as far away as the Sulu Sea in the Philippines and Singapore and Malaysia to the south.