China– A threat to the South China Sea?

May 3, 2017

China– A threat to the South China Sea?

by Mark J. Valencia

Image result for China--A Threat to the South China Sea

When reporting on the South China Sea, it has become commonplace for media around the world to draw upon think tank research detailing China’s developing military capable facilities in the region. Some use the information to bolster campaigns to convince the US Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to the country’s interests, including freedom of navigation. But the deepening drumbeat for the US to militarily confront China in the South China Sea should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies describes China’s latest construction projects in the South China Sea, concluding that it ‘can now deploy military assets including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time’. This is fact. But the AMTI director also warned in a subsequent interview to ‘look for deployment in the near future’. This implies that China intends to use these facilities to do so. This is supposition.
Image result for China--A Threat to the South China Sea

US Aircraft Carrier US Carl Vinson

Australia’s Lowy Institute released a similar report fretting that ‘these strategic outposts will permit Beijing to enhance its power projection capabilities and establish anti-access zones right across the South China Sea’. There are many bad things that could happen in the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean that they will.

Media distortion flourishes when academic analysts themselves push US-slanted research. Let’s take the concern that China will interfere with freedom of commercial navigation. Media articles often cite the more than US$5 trillion trade that transits the South China Sea. The obvious inference is that China may use their facilities to disrupt this trade. This is possible. But China has not done so, is unlikely to do so and maintains it will not do so. China’s economy depends on seaborne trade through the South China Sea, which would likely be interrupted in a conflict.

The United States has cleverly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to undertake provocative military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities (ISR). The US argument is that freedom of navigation is indivisible and includes both commercial navigation and US IRR probes. The United States then argues that China’s interference with its military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) violates freedom of navigation. But China argues that it is not challenging freedom of navigation itself, only the abuse of this right by the US military in its EEZ.

US ISR missions include active ‘tickling’ of China’s coastal defences to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, ‘preparation of the battlefield’ using legal ambiguities to evade the scientific research consent regime, and tracking of China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base. In China’s view these are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by most states. Moreover, they are not uses of the ocean for peaceful purposes as required by UNCLOS, but are intrusive and controversial practices threatening the use of force which is prohibited by the UN Charter.

Western think-tank research seems often one-sided and focused on ‘outing’ China. More balanced analysis would pay equivalent attention to other claimants’ activities — particularly those of the US navy and its own ‘militarisation’ of the South China Sea. While China might present a problem for the US navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the United States still maintains the overall military advantage in the South China Sea. It currently operates with combat military vessels and aircraft as well as manned ISR assets. It is also deploying aerial, surface and underwater drones to the area.

Research on the South China Sea also commonly neglects the vulnerability of China’s installations to the US capability to destroy them. In any conflict scenario — and interference with commercial freedom of navigation would likely incite conflict — these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range cruise missiles.

According to Dennis Blair, retired Admiral and former US director of national intelligence, ‘The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us’. Vietnam has deployed advanced mobile rocket launchers to some of the features it occupies thus threatening China’s installations.

China apparently does not consider defensive installations ‘militarisation’. It has repeatedly warned it will defend itself if the United States persists with provocative ISR probes and Freedom of Navigation exercises (FONOPs) near its coast and occupied features. In a January 2016 teleconference with US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said that ‘We won’t not set up defences. How many defences completely depends on the level of threat we face’. Self-defence is every nation’s right.

There is obviously disagreement over the definition of ‘militarisation’ and who is doing it. Was the recent US deployment of the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike force into the South China Sea ‘militarising’ the Sea? What about US ally Japan announcing with great media hype that it will send its largest naval vessel there? Both China and the US are ‘militarising’ the South China Sea — at least in each other’s eyes.

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), Haikou.

13 thoughts on “China– A threat to the South China Sea?

  1. The most obvious method to deescalate the SCS tension and angst is for PRC/ROC to stop their saber rattling and peddling of their 9-dash line or whatever – and stick to the UNCLOS ruling. I am a Huaren, but no Chung-kuo-ren, but i see the belligerence of PRC as imperialistic bullying and intimidation. We are not living in the past or are we?

    All the littoral nations want, is a fair shake of their maritime economic resources. These can be developed in partnership or joint ventures between the countries concerned somewhat like the North Sea O&G Fields and with shared fishing quotas monitored by international agencies. All this can be accomplished by diplomacy and hard-nosed bargaining with a great deal of mutual respect between neighbors.

    The trouble is that the Mainland Chinese are simply chauvinistic. Perhaps it’s their outdated concept of post-Confucianism coupled with an Unstoppable Ascendancy attitude. The history of China is rife with such selfish misadventures, of which the Great Wall can be seen as a monumental waste of human lives and resources.

    Freedom of Navigation is of utmost importance and demilitarization would be ideal – but not with PRC building bases which are nothing but concreted ‘sitting duck’ missile targets for Taikors ballistic and kinetic weapons. Tactically, they make as much sense as tract-less tank. Strategically, they do nothing but irritate, arouse and antagonize. This is not the 18-20th century, where cannons rule with a limited range of lethality. Modern weapons are much more sophisticated than what normal Joes like me can imagine. In fact, a category 3 typhoon will probably sink or water-log those outcrops for good.

    Besides, the Indonesian-Aussie Maritime nexus is firming up, and although not yet as powerful as PLAN, will be another factor to contend with, within the next decade. I was not allowed to visit the Collin’s class submarine upgrades. Wonder why..

  2. What and how America would react,

    if China and /or Russia conflate freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to carry out, even non- provocative military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities, and or with freedom of navigation and exercise ( FONOP) off the coast of USA, in the Carribean​?

    Then, would America not consider such activities are direct threats and offensive?

    So , what is USA fleet , already having countless military bases, (Japan, S.Korea, Philippines, Singapore,Vietnam and Australian​,..,), surrounding China, doing in the South China Sea?

    America is not even a claiming country in SCS— It is blatantly militarization, outrageously hegemony.

  3. UN specifically and clearly stated it had nothing to do with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,PCA. It(UN) does not recognize the ruling, which was heard unilaterally under the guidelines of UNCLOS, without China”s presence. An arbitration/decision is only valid, when all parties involved have agreed to participate.

    The ruling of PCA is illegitimate and not bidding.
    Besides, US is not even a signatory to UNCLOS.

    USA is, in fact, a the militaristic ,” belligerent , bullying, imperialistic, intimidator” misconducting itself in this part of world, where it is not a claimant country in SCS territorial disputes.

  4. For goodness (or whatever’s) sake – enough of your Middle Kingdom chauvinistic blunder-fuss, kllaukl. You sound liker a broken 45 rpm gramophone record with your “belligerent , bullying, imperialistic, intimidator” superiority complex.

    There will be no Justice nor Peace, when when blokes like you devolve into Legalistic sino-fascists. Wake up, smell the coffee – or your green tea! The world is far from being Sinocentric.

    Taikor still remains USA, no matter how you wanna ‘Trump’ it. Yes, Taikor bullies and intimidates. But they do not have the expansionist dreams of Emperor Xi in the SCS. They go to war and mess up whole regions til kingdom come – with nary an apology – so what can you do about it? Become a ‘Weatherman’ or an OBOR flunky? Remember the Cuban Crisis after the Bay of Pigs? Or the incessant CIA black ops in the Caribbean in the 60-80s? We don’t need any of these. Understand?

    But i am not an apologist for Taikor, but as a SEAsian Huaren whose ancestors left what was then, the sick dog of Asia. And who is responding from Oz.

  5. I agree with Mark J. Valencia that China is not the only one ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea, and it is unfair to blame Beijing for its ‘defensive weapons’ systems in the Spratlys when the US and others, like Vietnam and the Philippines, are similarly provocative. And who started the rocks and reefs grabbing and first to build artificial islands there? Not China.

    The US has some 20 bases there to “maintain stability in the region”, so they say, and to protect their partners interests. They do not see this as an issue as they have done so with the ‘blessings’ of their partner nations. But I would venture to guess that there is a lot of influence peddling and prodding in order to move things forward as the US dictates. China does not take the subtle approach but their objectives are also to “build and maintain stability in the region.” Who is saber rattling? The US or China?

    It’s all a propaganda machine but I do agree with Mark Valencia’s insights. It will be interesting to watch what happens going forward…. I’m betting China will win the game.

  6. I am an advocate of the practice of SaBoR Concept, which China has shown to have actively involved with Vietnam and other littoral nations, on sharing benefits and responsibilities, where the US companies, already indirectly have stakes in oil n gas in these countries.

    China today is the result of mutual benefits it derived from the cooperation in trading with America and the members of the WTO. There is no dispute on its willingness to share benefits with any country, including the USA, neither in recognising (US )who is the ” taikor” , perhaps in next 30 years.

    But that does not give US the right or luxury to bully, intimidate and provoke militarily and do anything freely to mess up this region without risking, critically, the supports of it’s proxy countries which will eventually bear the costs of it’s “belligerent” agendas

    I am not addicted or have preference to “coffee” or “green tea”.
    Unlike the US and the Western Colonialisers, China and “Emperor ” Xi, on record had not shown territorial “expansionist” ambitions.

    On the ” nary an apology” , Japan should be asked for it’s war criminal act and atrocity committed during WW 11. Unfortunately, Obama did apologized to Japan,instead, for the atomic bombs dropped there during the war.

    In the past, unapologetic​ally, the ” sick dog of Asia” was made in USA, Britain (opium trade), France , Japan, Germany and Portugal.

    At present time, the facts remain, the UN does not recognise the verdict of PCA, regardless.

  7. CL Familiaris, it is you that should wake up to the new reality, at least as far as South East Asia is concerned.

    America no longer enjoys primacy in SEA. Not economic primacy, that train left long ago. SEA’s economic well being is now tightly inter-dependant with that of China. And it will only increase in the future.

    Not military primacy either, America can’t put China back in it’s place through diplomacy (see inability to prevent major allies from joining AIIB, inability of using so-called arbitration to prevent island building), and neither is America willing to push back China using war (see American inaction during Scarborough Shoal incident, or unwillingness to start armed conflicts to stop island building).

    In the end, geographic and cultural afinity will dictate that Asians would have to work out among ourselves to solve Asian problems.

    • How do they work out among themselves when one is so much bigger and stronger than all the other states.Its the selfish human nature to use your strenght and power to subjugate weaker opponents.The only exception to this rule are the righteous people and they are only a few among men.
      The only other way is for the smaller and weaker countries to gang up with each other and may therefore reduce their individual weakness when confronting the stronger neighbour.Rather than putting their hopes on USA all smaller Asian countries should gang up to face USA,China and in the near future India if they dont want to be subjugated by these oresent and upcoming superpowers.

  8. So you sabot types are whole-heartedly endorsing PRC’s 9-dash or whatever? If you are not a Mainland Chinapek, and a SEAsian Huaren there must be something wrong with your sense of belonging and nationalistic instincts. Yup, chauvinistic racists, no different from the Gwai-Lo supremacists. You sabor your nose to spite your face?

    What effing ‘Asian cultural affinity’ are you talking about, Shonen? And what Geography are you claiming, when the world has become a Global Village? Of course there are Village idiots, but don’t tell me your maniacal generalizations prove that you are one.

  9. Btw DIn, i won’t be commenting any further about this topic, since there are just too many Expert Sinologists suffering from sinusitis and dribbly literalists who don’t understand metaphors, inhabiting this space.

    Just to let you know that i deal a lot with PRC blokes who can’t tell the difference between sunset or sunrise because their skies are in a perpetual haze. In order yo ‘see’ a sunrise, they’d have to visit Tienanmen Square and watch it on a humongous LED screen..

    Many of them admit that the Overseas Chinese are true to the lost traditions, so they have to reverse engineer their so-called Chinese-ness. If you wanna see ‘culture’ don’t go to PRC, go to ROC or even Boston or Jamaica.

  10. Having observed the current facts and historical records, my take is,
    US with​ its bullying and belligerent conduct is more likely be a threat to SCS?

  11. Threat ? Not overtly but Covertly….. they have got some VIPs in their ‘pocket’ , b’coz of the I MDB fiasco…. – so all these show of Mega projects. and the latest is the Vision Valley project @ Putra Jaya of 160 billion….Wow ….!

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