Why is China Militarising the South China Sea?


What really explains Beijing’s decision to build military installations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea? Sukjoon Yoon thinks that we should view China’s militarization of the region as a misguided political choice rather than a desire for increased military flexibility.

By Sukjoon Yoon for RSIS

This commentary was originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 11 May 2015.

Recent Western reports confirm that China is militarising disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. China will obtain no military benefit from this but will simply acquire some weak naval bases at the cost of antagonising rival claimants.

Even as ASEAN nations are responding warmly to China’s “Maritime Silk Road” initiative, dredging operations for land reclamation works are going on at seven disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. Naval and air force facilities are being established: new piers and wharves, extended airstrips, and military garrisons with radar installations and coastal artillery. Does this militarisation of the South China Sea really help China to become a “true maritime power” as exhorted by President Xi Jinping?

The South China Sea is a large semi-enclosed sea which carries a third of the world’s shipping and has vast oil and gas reserves; it therefore has enormous geostrategic and economic significance. Recently, there have been growing tensions between China and ASEAN members concerning numerous small islands which are either permanently submerged or exposed only at low tide. Seeing China’s determination to apparently reestablish its historical dominance of the South China Sea, all the Southeast Asian nations, especially those with territorial claims disputed by China, are currently building up their naval capacities.

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