Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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Now Is the Time: Setting U.S. Policy on Taiwan

On February 11, Taiwan marked a milestone in its relations with China.  The head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council held direct talks with his counterpart in China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.  Such government-to-government talks have not occurred since the Chinese Civil War split the two sides sixty-five years ago.  Although the direct talks accomplished far less than the quasi-official meetings that China and Taiwan already held to improve trade and travel between them, the talks were an important step in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to warm ties with mainland China.  Certainly his efforts have calmed tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which reached a peak during his predecessor’s term as president.  But lest there be too much optimism, a gulf (not only of water) remains between the two sides.

For the moment, Taiwan’s political leaders are focused on the regional elections that lay ahead this year and, perhaps for Ma, the legacy that he will leave behind.  Both of the major political parties on Taiwan have recently taken a second look at its bridge building with China.  Under Ma, the Kuomintang (KMT) has taken the initiative to build those bridges in order to boost Taiwan’s flagging economy.  But many within the KMT’s rank-and-file remain wary of further movement that could lead to Beijing’s rule over Taiwan.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which once unabashedly advocated for independence from China, is now increasingly split between those who still want independence and those who want to open talks with China, if that is the direction their island nation is to go.  And so, as Taiwan’s political leaders position themselves for electoral success later this year, they are also implicitly crafting their parties’ policy narratives for Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections.

Yet for all the discussion within Taiwan about how to approach China, few seem concerned about how the United States would react.  That is remarkable because the United States is the island nation’s security guarantor from Chinese attack.  Can one attribute Taiwan’s lack of attention on the United States to its confidence that America’s security guarantee is beyond question?  Or can one attribute Taiwan’s attitude to the growing perception in Asia that despite the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” toward the region that American military might and political will to guarantee Asian stability no longer seems quite assured, at least relative to China’s rise.  Such a perception has already motivated countries, like Japan and the Philippines, to seek reassurances from Washington of its continued commitments to them.

And so, perhaps Taiwan’s political leaders, anticipating a gradual weakening of American resolve to defend their island nation, have chosen to deepen their ties with China, while they can still negotiate with some measure of strength.  But whether they want to admit it or not, their behavior also influences American determination to maintain Taiwan’s freedom from China.  On the other hand, they cannot wait for the United States to come to a consensus regarding Taiwan.  In Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to China, North Korea and the East China Sea were the top issues of discussion; it is unclear whether Taiwan even reached the agenda.

Indeed, it is an open question whether the United States has a clear policy on Taiwan.  Two camps have emerged in Washington: one wants to ensure a Taiwan free from Chinese rule and the other sees Taiwan as a nuisance in the great power relations between China and the United States that are already complex and fraught with other dangers.  Partly out of necessity, the latter camp seemed to have gained the upper hand after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  Washington needed calm across the Taiwan Strait as it fought two conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But putting Taiwan on the backburner has made the island’s absorption into China more likely, in which case the most practical American policy would be to help Taiwan obtain the best possible terms for its absorption.  The former camp, probably sensing America’s drift away from Taiwan, has become more vocal.  It urges that American policy take a firmer line on Taiwan—enhancing the island’s defenses and building stronger political bonds with it.  Some within that camp simply abhor the notion that China will snuff out Taiwan’s democracy; others point to Taiwan’s value to the United States, citing the island’s geographical significance to the balance of power in the western Pacific.

Whichever policy direction the United States chooses, it would be wise to start engaging Taiwan’s political leaders now.  Waiting until Taiwan turns its attention to the United States may be too late.  By 2016 when Taiwan’s presidential election cycle is in full swing, the island’s political parties are likely to have hardened their respective positions, making American influence less effective.  Now is the time to begin its engagement.  But that is if Washington can manage to decide which policy it should pursue.

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