Tensions in the South China Sea were raised once again on the 21st of May when a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance plane was identified by Chinese early warning radar gathering reconnaissance above the Spratly archipelago. The crew of the P8 were warned at least eight times to abort their flight over the contested waters, yet continued undeterred, informing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that they were flying through international airspace.
The core mission objective was to monitor China’s massive land reclamation efforts on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Johnson South Reef. In just over two years, China has successfully expanded these hitherto semi-submerged and predominantly uninhabited reefs by a combined 2,000 acres.
This has caused great consternation among the other competing claimants, prompting members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint-statement, warning that China’s reclamation efforts have ‘threatened to undermine peace, security and stability’ in the region.
Fiery Cross Reef (known as Yongshu Reef in China) has borne the majority of the developments, including barracks, lookout towers, an early warning radar system and a 3,000 metre long airstrip capable of accommodating the vast majority of PLAN aircraft. In addition to this, the Chinese have constructed an artificial harbour sufficiently deep enough to support tankers, resupply and fishing vessels, and navy ships.
The surveillance footage clearly dispels Chinese assertions that reclamation efforts in the region were being undertaken solely for peaceful purposes. In the past Beijing has claimed that any construction work on the reefs was being completed to improve the living standards of the small number of the island’s inhabitants, to enhance weather forecasting capabilities, or indeed aid cooperation during humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
Instead, China’s actions signal an intention both to challenge American naval primacy in the region and to bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea by physically altering the geography of the areas that it holds. Beijing thus hopes to cast a certain level of doubt over the original status of the rocks and reefs in an attempt to weaken rival claimants’ legal positions in the event of international arbitration based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
It is also likely to use the newly enhanced facilities on Fiery Cross and other reefs to host maritime surveillance drones that will help monitor its claims in the region and respond decisively if its territorial integrity is deemed to be at risk. Problematically, that territory, demarcated by China’s infamous 9 dash-line, represents approximately 90% of the entire South China Sea, encroaching on counter claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
In the coming months China may attempt to seize the Second Thomas Shoal from the Philippines, if the ship currently beached on it slides into the sea as predicted. If Filipino forces are attacked, there is a risk that the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty may be invoked, obliging the United States to come to the Philippines’ defence. However, it must be acknowledged that the United States refuses to provide any definitive answer as to how they would respond to specific acts of Chinese aggression in the contested waters.
This ambiguity foments a heightened risk of escalatory conflict developing between China and the U.S. due to misunderstandings and ‘near miss incidents’. To ensure that such events are avoided, the U.S. and China have agreed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) On the Rules of Behaviour for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.
Although ostensibly a positive step the MOU is in many respects a flawed agreement. It is non-binding under international law and fails to take into account the two countries’ fundamentally divergent perspectives regarding what constitutes legitimate military operations in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The risk of unintended clashes thus remains dangerously high. If the U.S. maintains its policy (as it appears that it will) of conducting sea and air based surveillance operations in Chinese held territory, China may ultimately declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over its territory in the South China Sea as it did over the East China Sea in November 2014.
Such a move, viewed in the context of the PLAN’s increasing strength and power projection capabilities, would substantially heighten the risk of miscalculation and escalation between the two powers. In the absolute worst-case scenario, this could spell war between the two countries.
If conflict were to occur, China’s newly enhanced military outposts in the South China Sea would function as immobile aircraft carriers. Combined with various sensors, spy satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft, surface ships and submarines, these would act as an effective ‘kill chain’ that could be utilised in a time of war, to track and neutralise enemy ships operating in the region, up to and including aircraft carriers.
However, due to their static nature, the islands are extremely vulnerable to attack. They are tiny and yet to become fully self-sufficient, rendering them almost impossible to defend from either a cruise missile barrage or amphibious attack. In the event of a sustained offensive, one can expect their survivability to be measured in days, if not hours.
China is more than aware of these shortcomings and will therefore aim to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. at all costs. It certainly will not utilise its newly functioning outposts for regional military conquest; the risks would be far too high. Neither is China likely to imperil the more than $5 trillion of seaborne trade that passes through the strategic waters annually. Approximately 60% of China’s imported oil passes through the South China Sea, as well as a substantial portion of Chinese exports. In no conceivable scenario would China risk jeopardising those supply routes.
If the relationship between China and the United States continues to deteriorate, there is a genuine risk that cooperation on global issues such as combating international terrorism and climate change will suffer. If the conflict in the South China Sea begins to permeate an increasingly broad spectrum of interests in this manner, there is a genuine risk that this hitherto localised conflict could develop into a global security threat.
Image courtesy of Asitimes