In an appearance on Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, could not have been more clear, stating “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.”
Admiral Harris’ remark comes after multiple reports released last week confirming that Beijing continues its militarization of the South China Sea, having installed an advanced air defense missile system on Woody Island in the Paracel island chain and a high-frequency radar system on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly island chain as well as another deployment of fighter jets to Woody Island.
Beijing is also accused of installing “probable” radars at Gaven, Hughes and Johnson South Reefs in the Spratlys as well as helipads. Woody Island (Phu Lam to Vietnamese, Yongxing to Chinese), the largest of the Paracel islands, came under Chinese control following the defeat of the South Vietnamese in the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys were invaded by China in 1988.
Images provided by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies showed facilities on Cuarteron Reef nearly completed and confirmed presence of a high-frequency radar system. Last week, images revealed by AllSource Analysis, a satellite imagery intelligence company based in Colorado, show the Chinese military to have installed two batteries of HQ-9 surface-to-air launchers with a range of about 200 kilometers (125 miles) that can be used to target enemy aircraft.
China’s Ministry of Defense confirmed the deployment, stating “China has deployed weapons on the island for a long time,” according to a report in the influential Chinese tabloid, Global Times newspaper, published by the Communist Party flagship newspaper People’s Daily.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman also asserted Beijing’s right to deploy armaments to defend its sovereign territory, angering the other two claimants to the island chain, Vietnam and Taiwan, and raising concerns among the U.S. administration and its allies in the region (such as the Philippines) regarding increased militarization and freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea (East Sea). In response, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have escalated defense expenditures, catapulting them to among the top 10 countries with the fastest-growing defense budgets in 2015.
Practically, how real is the threat of China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles batteries on Woody Island? The announcement has certainly increased the rhetoric coming from the state-owned press on the Chinese mainland, with nationalists finding their voice once again. One commentator called for China to fire warning shots or deliberately collide with American warships, while another suggested Beijing “teach the U.S. a lesson” if America continues to challenge Chinese territory, as posted on the overseas edition of People’s Daily social media account.
As Beijing increases its military presence in the South China Sea, U.S. challenges to Chinese sovereignty (though it holds no official position on territorial disputes) have stepped up since October 2015. Since then, the U.S. has run two active campaigns, using naval vessels and aircraft in freedom of navigation exercises through disputed features which are not considered legitimate maritime claims under international law.
Last month, the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel islands—according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states may exercise sovereignty up to a limit not to exceed 12 nautical miles, although foreign vessels are allowed “innocent passage” through those waters.
Last October, the U.S. Navy challenged territorial claims in the Spratly island archipelago, sailing the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen past a series of islets at Subi Reef, a low-tide elevation that China has built up into a massive artificial island. And in November, the U.S. flew two of its B-52 bombers near islands in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing. The aircraft were given two verbal warnings from a Chinese air traffic controller—despite never venturing within 15 nautical miles of any feature. Although a lot of attention has been given to these latest freedom of navigation exercises, the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program has been in operation over the last 35 years.
Given the latest effort by Beijing to militarize the South China Sea, will the U.S. again feel obligated to send a warning by asserting its right to freedom of navigation? Last Tuesday, during a meeting in California with the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), U.S. President Barack Obama called for “tangible steps” to lower tensions in the South China Sea. At the end of the meetings, joint statement by ASEAN was issued, calling for the “peaceful resolution” of territorial disputes in the region. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sat down at the U.S. State Department in an attempt to reduce tensions.
An analysis by Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas, also downplays the development, arguing the presence of air defense systems on Woody Island “does not necessarily reflect a major escalation”. Rather, Stratfor analysts view the placement of the systems on a deteriorating sand platform near the waterline (see cover photo) suggests they are “either part of a training operation or a conspicuous show of force” intended to send a political message. Stratfor, whose motto is “Don’t Be Confused By Mainstream Media,” views the discovery of the missile systems as “neither surprising nor particularly meaningful,” arguing their deployment “is unlikely to shift the calculations of any country involved.”
Furthermore, given their placement, the question of whether these mobile missile systems are a permanent structure and thus subject to erosion by saltwater can be raised. Bonnie Glaser director of the China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, earlier used the same argument when questioning the long-term deployment of advanced J-11BH/BHS fighter aircraft on Woody Island: “My understanding is that fighters are likely only to be deployed for short time frames in the Spratlys—the salty sea air would cause havoc to the aircraft over long periods.” Salt water would likely have the same deteriorating effect on any long-term placement of the missile systems on the island.
Yet if the deployment of the missile defense systems placement on Woody Island were intended to make “jet fighters from the U.S. […] feel uneasy when making provocative flights in the region,” as argued in an editorial published February 18 in the Global Times, Beijing would be foolish to believe the deployment will prevent the U.S. from continuing its routine freedom of navigation exercises. Given the amount of negative press the deployment has attracted, the heightened fears of claimants in the region, and the perceived obligation for Washington to continually demonstrate its “pivot to Asia” after each Chinese show of aggression, we should not be too surprised to see another freedom of navigation exercise in the coming days, conducted by the U.S., Australia or another country.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, warned as much on Wednesday, telling the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, “We’ll fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” without offering specifics, but suggesting the use of a destroyer that “is well able to defend itself should those operations go awry.”