Why Is China Building New Islands in the South China Sea?

In late 2013, Chinese policymakers decided to pursue unprecedented building projects in seven reefs in the Spratly Islands chain of the South China Sea. By the beginning of 2016, all of the seven features — Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef, and Cuarteron Reef — have been turned into islets. Although other South China Sea claimant states — principally Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines — have been reclaiming land and building islets over the past several decades, the speed and scale of China’s building projects stand out in a class of its own, reflecting the new engineering prowess of a rising China. So, why is China building these new islands? What does it want to do with them?

An often-heard explanation is that China is simply trying to catch up with Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines by creating a strong physical presence in the South China Sea. Due to years of negligence and lack of capability, China has lagged dangerously behind rival claimants in strengthening its physical presence at sea. So, this argument goes, what China is doing now is simply to make up for its past lethargy. And it should not be singled out for international castigation for something that other claimant countries have already been doing for decades.

While descriptively and technically correct, this argument begs more questions. What is the strong physical presence for? There may be many different and not always incompatible answers to this question. One purpose may be to demonstrate and strengthen sovereignty claims. Thus, China’s Foreign Ministry spokespersons as well as Foreign Minister Wang Yi have repeatedly stated that China’s construction activities are entirely within its sovereign rights and are thus completely reasonable and lawful.

However, if the purpose is simply to make a point about sovereignty, it is unclear why the building projects were executed with such speed and scale, presumably at great financial costs, and with all the attending diplomatic risks. There are other financially and diplomatically cheaper options of demonstrating sovereignty. In fact, since 2009, China has already been visibly doing this with its maritime law enforcement activities, particularly its May 2012 standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.

The current building projects come with both financial and diplomatic costs. Although no official figure has been released, the financial costs are likely to be in the league of several billion US dollars or more. The diplomatic costs are also substantial and have become clear by now. A number of Southeast Asian states have grown more suspicious of China, regional public opinions are mostly critical, and the United States has undertaken two “freedom of navigation” operations near Chinese features in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. If the purpose is sovereignty demonstration, the costs of this demonstration appear substantial.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the island construction will meet “necessary military defense needs.”1 But the main purpose will be civil, including search and rescue at sea, disaster prevention and relief, marine scientific research, weather observation, ecological protection, safety of navigation, and fishing services. These are seen as China’s international responsibilities, and the international public goods China intends to produce.

Ironically, although Beijing has repeatedly emphasized its motivation to deliver those international public goods, progress on this front has been slow. To be sure, constructions are still ongoing and the facilities haven’t all been completed. But there are ways in which China can convey its positive intentions more effectively. For example, it can declare forthrightly that many of those public goods facilities will be open to regional and international stakeholders. It may even invite foreign companies — including Southeast Asian and American companies — to jointly develop some of these facilities. It can even open some of the construction sites to a select group of foreign media organizations. Had such intentions been announced in early 2014 when reclamation began, Beijing would have faced much less diplomatic pressure than it is facing now.

Instead, because international attention is now focused on airstrips rather than rescue stations as the most visible items being built, Beijing is facing the dilemma of having to deal with the awkward charge of militarizing the South China Sea, even though it is the United States, not China, that possesses the strongest military presence in the region. Beijing only claims “necessary military defense needs” for the islands, but many foreign observers are aiming squarely at the potential military value of the islands. So, what military utilities can the islands have?

The value of the new islands as tools of deterrence only starts to make sense when the target is a superpower — the United States — rather than the small powers of Southeast Asia.

Apart from pure defense, as the Foreign Ministry claims,2 the islands can be used for either limited deterrence or power projection. Deterrence can be directed at either regional states with which China has disputed claims (principally Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia) or at the United States, the dominant military power in the region. In the former case, the purpose of deterrence would be to prevent regional states from further encroachments on China’s sovereign rights, such as building activities on the features they control, or fishing and natural resources exploration in surrounding waters. But it is questionable whether island building is a necessary or effective strategy for deterring provocations from regional states. In fact, Beijing’s forceful response to the standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in May 2012 has already created a powerful deterrent effect throughout Southeast Asia. Were regional claimant states to continue provocative activities, Beijing could always respond by repeating the “Scarborough Shoal model,” as is sometimes discussed by Chinese analysts. Building islands is not the best way to demonstrate China’s strategic resolve to its smaller neighbors.

Moreover, it is unclear whether it makes good strategic sense for a great power like China to aim to deter the small powers of Southeast Asia. Deterrence is a strategy best applied to potential great power rivals. Thus, it makes eminent sense for China to maintain a limited second-strike nuclear capability against the vastly larger nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. But, toward Southeast Asian states, what China needs to inspire among them is respect, trust and affection, not suspicion and fear. When demonstration of strategic resolve is needed, as was arguably the case between 2003 and 2008 when Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines continued their activities to consolidate their features in the South China Sea despite signing the Declaration of Code of Conduct in 2002, this can be done in a calculated and context-specific way.

Thus, it would appear that the value of the new islands as tools of deterrence only starts to make sense when the target is a superpower — the United States — rather than the small powers of Southeast Asia. But here “deterrence” is a misnomer. China’s purpose may be to deny the US military access to or passage through parts of the South China Sea in the event of a military operation against Taiwan or a conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu islands. Such a military objective is sometimes referred to as “anti-access/area denial,” a term that has already been used for some time by international analysts to describe China’s military strategy. It is this strategic aspect of island building that seems to have concerned American military planners the most, because it would be a challenge to the US maritime strategy based on unfettered access to the global commons including the sea, air, and outer space.

China has been building at least three airstrips in the Spratly Islands, each with a length of at least 3,000 meters that will allow it to handle both military and civilian aircraft. The one already completed on Fiery Cross Reef is 3,160 meters long, over which Chinese authorities have recently conducted test-flights of civilian aircraft. Moreover, Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef have been expanded to 2.6, 4, and 5.6 square kilometers respectively, becoming the largest islands in the entire South China Sea.3

It is not unreasonable to speculate that in time, China may be tempted to host fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles on these islands, in addition to building deep sea ports for its submarine fleet. In fact, advanced missile batteries have already been sighted on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Such weapons systems are likely to spook regional states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, prompting them to strengthen their own military capabilities and seek greater collaboration with the United States. They can also impede or at least create troubles for the US military’s access to and freedom of maneuver in the South China Sea region. But while they are useful for “gray zone conflicts” involving non-lethal use of military force, they will be vulnerable to attacks from US forces in high-intensity military operations. Because the islands are immobile, they run higher risks of being destroyed in actual conflicts than aircraft-carriers. Thus, somewhat ironically, keeping peace with the United States appears to be a necessary condition for China to maintain the military value of the islands.

More likely, however, China is not betting on the military value of the islands in times of actual conflict, but rather counting on their utilities for the long-term projection of Chinese power through the South China Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and beyond. Chinese planners appear to understand that the South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Represented by the economically and strategically critical Malacca Strait, the South China Sea is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland where the global sea routes coalesce. If Beijing’s current strategy of building a new maritime Silk Road comes to fruition, these islands may function as crucial points in this new economic network, providing logistical and military support for protecting China’s sprawling economic interests. This does not mean that China would necessarily seek military dominance of the region, but that it would aim to build a navy powerful enough to safeguard its economic interests, including protecting vital sea-lanes and fighting piracy and terrorism. In time, China may, like the United States today, also seek strategic access not just to the Western Pacific but also to the Indian Ocean. Island-bases in the South China Sea are likely to be useful for such power projection over the long term. In other words, they form part of Beijing’s declared strategy of becoming a great sea power.

If Beijing’s current strategy of building a new maritime Silk Road comes to fruition, these islands may function as crucial points in this new economic network, providing logistical and military support for protecting China’s sprawling economic interests.

If the main strategic purpose of the new islands is power projection rather than access denial, then the Foreign Ministry’s official claim for “necessary military defense needs” indeed rings true. American and Japanese strategists routinely characterize China’s military strategy as “anti-access/area denial.” But from Chinese perspectives, what China is doing is simply trying to modernize its military to improve the defense of near-sea regions as well as to protect far-sea interests such as trade and energy transport. This strategic rationale also informs China’s latest defense white paper released last year. The new islands can thus serve the purpose of both safeguarding China’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea and projecting Chinese power in the wider region over the long run.

The problem now, however, is that the current round of island construction and the lackluster diplomacy accompanying it are generating a regional backlash. The inadequacy of Beijing’s planning before launching the building projects is apparent. Chinese policymakers may have hoped that America’s preoccupation with the Middle East and Russia would divert its attention from the South China Sea, thus giving China a more or less free hand in the region. They may have also assumed that President Obama’s “strategic patience” — or rather, “strategic indecisiveness” — presented China with a rare window of opportunity to carry out the building projects with exceptional speed.
These are not unreasonable assumptions given events at the time. And indeed the Obama administration struggled for a while to come up with a forceful response. But Beijing overlooked a key fact of Obama foreign policy, namely, the administration has made Southeast Asia a priority since his first day in office, and it has strengthened its diplomatic and military presence in the region. Most recently, as the US has carried out self-styled “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) against Chinese islets, Beijing is feeling compelled to react.

The current state of affairs centering on US FONOPs may not lead to conflict between China and the United States. But it is hardly a satisfactory situation. One can ask whether FONOPs are the best response to China’s island building in the South China Sea. At the same time, China also needs to reflect on and evaluate the efficacy of this part of its South China Sea policy. Has it served the purpose it was originally intended to serve? What are the gains and losses as a result? What are the lessons for future policy toward the region?

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Feng Zhang is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations, Deputy Director (Higher Degree by Research) of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a member of the executive committee of the Australian Centre on China in the World based at the ANU. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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