Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea


Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.


Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.


Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.


China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]


The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.


That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.


[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016,

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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China’s (Is)land Reclamation in the South China Sea

For the last few years, China and the Philippines have repeatedly accused each other of destabilizing the uneasy balance in the South China Sea, where both sides claim small bits of land among the Spratly Islands.  Both have attempted to demonstrate their control over the area by using naval and coast guard patrols to protect what they consider to be their national fisheries.  And on occasion, they have detained and fined each others’ fishermen.  That is what happened early this month when Philippine authorities caught a Chinese fishing boat poaching sea turtles off Half Moon Shoal.

But China has become more assertive in its claims over the South China Sea.  After a months-long standoff at sea in 2012, it has effectively barred the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal, an islet about 200 km off the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon (and well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone).  The Philippines has responded by beefing up its armed forces and drawing closer to the United States, even entering into a new security pact with it last month called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (earlier referred to as the Increased Rotational Presence).

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

Meanwhile, China argues that it was Manila that escalated tensions, because it failed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, an old landing ship tank that the Philippines had deliberately run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, after China built a permanent concrete structure on nearby Mischief Reef.  The Philippines now stations a small marine detachment on the ship to maintain its claim on the shoal and observe Chinese activity.  Earlier this year, China prevented the Philippines from resupplying that garrison in another round of confrontation.

But on May 15, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a series of photographs that show Chinese land reclamation and construction efforts on Johnson South Reef (or Mabini Reef in the Philippines) over the course of the last two years.[1]

Johnson South Reef, March 13, 2012

Johnson South Reef - March 2012

Johnson South Reef, February 28, 2013

Johnson South Reef - February 2013

Johnson South Reef, February 25, 2014

Johnson South Reef - February 2014

Johnson South Reef, March 11, 2014

Johnson South Reef - March 2014

Manila speculates that China intends to build an airstrip on the reef, based on the scale of the land reclamation.  That would make some sense, since China has no airstrip in the Spratly Islands (apart from a few helicopter landing pads).  China’s nearest airstrip is on Woody Island in the Paracel group.  There Chinese engineers built a 2,700-meter airstrip, long enough to support all types of Chinese combat aircraft, though Woody Island is so small that it is unlikely to accommodate enough facilities to serve as a full-fledged air base.[2]  But even a basic airstrip on Johnson South Reef could reduce the logistical burden of supporting Chinese garrisons across the Spratly Islands.  Such an airstrip could also support light surveillance aircraft, giving China a greater situational awareness over the region.  (Only more photographs will tell whether China actually builds an airstrip on the reef.)  Currently, of the six claimants to the Spratly Islands, only Taiwan and the Philippines, occupying the largest islands in the group, have airstrips in the area.

The Philippines has declared that China’s land reclamation on Johnson South Reef is in violation of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which both China and the Philippines signed in 2002.  The code pledges its signatories to not pursue “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.”[3]  The Philippines interprets that as a promise not to build on any of the South China Sea’s contested islands.  China obviously disagrees.  Manila lodged a formal protest against China last month, but Beijing rejected it.

While Beijing might rightly claim that some incidents in the South China Sea have been used to cast China in a negative light, it is clear that China has sought to change the status-quo in the area.  The other disputants in the region have begun to push back.  The Philippines brought its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in March 2014.  This month, Vietnam confronted Chinese offshore oil drilling activities near the Paracel Islands, which it disputes with China.  Even now, dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese boats are circling the Hai Yang Shi You 981 (or HD 981) oil rig, about 220 km east of Vietnam’s coast.  That confrontation has sparked anti-Chinese protests and violence against factories in Vietnam, and prompted the United States to criticize China’s “aggressive” and “provocative” moves.  But Beijing has paid little heed, reiterating that both island groups are within China’s sovereign territory.

While countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to maintain friendly ties with China, its recent actions in the South China Sea must concern their leaders.  It is harder for even those who consider themselves friends of China to continue giving it the benefit of the doubt.  But then again, that was the point of the Philippines’ photographs.

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