China’s Menacing Sandcastles in the South China Sea


China is building in the South China Sea, but this isn’t any normal construction. China is expanding islands and building new ones on reefs in disputed waters around the Paracel and Spratly Islands and readying them for military use. What should the United States do? Why should the United States care? We collected some of the best minds on Asian maritime security affairs to explain this dangerous escalation in China’s slow coercive game in the South China Sea:

Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange on “Putting Neighbors Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”

Dean Cheng on China’s “Blue Soil.”

Ely Ratner asks, “Can Washington do more?”

Shawn Brimley calls on U.S. policymakers to contest China’s facts on this new ground.

Robert Haddick says the United States should bolster allies and publicize China’s aggression.

Mira Rapp-Hooper says the United States should aim at China’s strategy.

Zack Cooper says it’s time for gray hulls in these gray zones.


China’s “Facts of Ground”: Putting Neighbors Between a Rock and a Hard Place

China didn’t open “Pandora’s Sandbox.” It isn’t the first claimant to transform reefs by padding them with sand. But China’s superior economic and military capacity enables it to outpace other claimants. It is rapidly building the greatest “sandcastles,” which support multiple military and paramilitary functions.

Beijing views Spratly and Paracel Islands augmentation as justified in “Chinese blue territory.” “China is entitled to these rights by law,” Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun declared on 29 January, “other nations have no right to gossip about them.” International concerns include: 1) China’s dredging sand and building conspicuously atop it; 2) its strategic opacity about building plans; 3) infrastructure’s potential to change the operational balance of power and Beijing’s claims; and 4) Beijing’s concurrent regional coercion, including deployment of an oil rig in Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone.

How do China’s sandcastles compare to those of other nations in the region?

South China Sea shoals boast rich sand deposits, but relocating substantial tonnage requires large-scale dredging through pipelines. The best tools: specialized dredgers. China’s Tianjing, Asia’s largest, can move over 100,000 cubic meters of sand per day. Tianjing fortified five Spratly Islands reefs in 2014. China’s Tianqi has dredged similarly in the Paracels. Vietnam, perhaps the second-most-prominent sand mover after China, has often pumped seawater through makeshift dams before pouring exposed sand, and lacks large specialized vessels. No contest.

How will China’s sand pouring withstand the sands of time? Narrow reefs require millions of tons to become stable “land.” Chinese reclamation faces challenges inherent in occupying highly strategic but vulnerable features. Salt spray corrodes any aircraft stationed. Typhoons complicate operations. Attack is far easier than defense. Still, to smaller neighbors, this looms large, given the sheer amount of resources and power China is investing in these tiny outposts.

Even if China’s goals are more strategic than substantive, building won’t directly confer sovereignty. Law of the Sea doesn’t recognize feature “upgrading,” and Washington knows what Beijing started with. Other claimants occupy features nearby; Vietnam reportedly over 29. China can continue to build, but cannot evict other states’ micro-installations without massive repercussions.

Considerable uncertainty over the ultimate extent to which China is altering the status quo makes it premature to liken South Sea island building to other historic Chinese geoengineering feats. The Great Wall and Grand Canal remain unequaled. But the real issue is Beijing’s relative capacity and lack of restraint in using it—restraint it demands of others’ legal activities, such as U.S. missile defense. Overshadowing its neighbors makes prospects of further Chinese island augmentation and the potential announcement of a South China Sea ADIZ particularly troubling.

Rigorous information collection and sharing are vital: U.S. surveillance flights represent a positive first step. But imagining that Beijing will change its behavior without others imposing concrete costs is to dream of castles in the sky. China’s recent response to a related State Department report: pound sand.

Andrew S. Erickson (@andrewserickson) is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the Naval War College. Austin M. Strange (@austinmstrange) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Harvard University.


China sees itself as building on its own “blue soil”

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) steadily pours tons of concrete into South China Sea waters, both neighboring states and the United States have become increasingly alarmed. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “This is a worrisome trend of the Chinese because of the tensions this is going to create in the South China Sea. They have been very aggressive about it.” From the American perspective, and that of China’s neighbors, the PRC appears intent upon establishing a new status quo over the South China Sea.

But from Beijing’s perspective it is quite likely that they see themselves as far more the aggrieved than the aggressor. As Chinese officials often point out, their construction comes after various other claimants, including Vietnam, have already been engaging in construction on their occupied shoals and reefs. Moreover, the South China Sea is on China’s front doorstep, with substantial natural resources at stake. China, from Beijing’s perspective, needs to defend its access to the fisheries, potential hydrocarbons, and other mineral assets of the region.

Furthermore, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) expands its presence on Hainan Island with an aircraft carrier berth, spaceport, submarine pens, as well as airfields and other military facilities, it is clearly in the Chinese interest to keep potential interlopers (especially the United States) at bay. In this regard, Beijing sees the other claimants acting as stalking horses for the United States, serving to contain China.

This last aspect goes to a much more deeply-rooted set of motivations. As Dai Bingguo noted to then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Chinese core interests include preserving national integrity and territorial sovereignty. Subsequent Chinese statements have reiterated the importance of maintaining Chinese sovereignty, including over the islands of the South China Sea. Similarly, the elevation of Sansha city (which has authority over the various South China Sea islands) to a prefecture level entity underscores both the growing importance of the region and the view that it is an integral part of China.

This goes to one of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fundamental claims of legitimacy — forestalling foreign efforts to redraw China’s borders. As China’s power has grown, its willingness to compromise about its territorial claims, whether Taiwan, the border with India, or the various islands in the South and East China Sea has declined.

The construction underway on various islands, then, are likely integral to the broader effort to persuade the global community to concede the South China Sea to Beijing. In this regard, though, it is unlikely to stop with just the land features within the “nine-dash line.” Beijing has also laid claim to the waters of the region, referring to them as “blue soil.” Indeed, a February 2015 story in People’s Daily reiterated the importance of this concept.

Dean Cheng is the senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at The Heritage Foundation. He specializes in Chinese military developments, especially space and doctrinal issues.


Can Washington do more to stop PRC land reclamation?

Efforts by the Obama administration to enhance America’s strategic position in Southeast Asia have been considerable: expanding and diversifying U.S. force posture, strengthening our alliances, building partner capacity, engaging regional institutions and providing forward-deployed U.S. forces with the newest and most advanced capabilities. Accompanying this has been intensive diplomacy in the region, including with China. And yet none of this has been sufficient to stop or deter China from proceeding apace with its land reclamation activities.

Ongoing PRC land reclamation in the South China Sea, if left unchecked, could fundamentally alter the strategic dynamics in East Asia and beyond. More needs to be done. So what’s holding the United States back from confronting this problem more directly?

For starters, China policy has to compete right now with serious and immediate national security threats in the Middle East and Europe. I’m the first to defend the rebalancing to Asia and have argued that the “pivot deniers” don’t really know what they’re talking about. Still, there’s no question that crises elsewhere are attracting U.S. government attention and resources.

But this isn’t just a question of prioritizing Asia versus other parts of the world. The more important issue is actually where maritime security and the South China Sea rank within Washington’s China policy. Working with China on other global and regional priorities—including Iran, Russia, ISIL, North Korea, climate change and Ebola—has frequently taken precedence over the South China Sea.

Finally, there’s the fact that this is a really hard policy problem. Even for those within the U.S. government who agree that Chinese land reclamation deserves more serious attention, most do not see any viable options that can thread the needle between being effective at changing China’s behavior in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests and not overly provocative.

So where to go from here? First, analysts need to be more concrete about the medium- and long-term implications of China’s land reclamation. For instance, what will these island facilities mean for PRC military and paramilitary presence and power projection? How would it affect key U.S. interests in the region if China, as a result of these facilities, has effective administrative control over much of the South China Sea? Senior policymakers will not be seized by this issue without a clearer picture of the potential consequences.

Second, it’s critical to conjoin efforts to highlight the importance of the issue with specific policy proposals for what to do next. Instead of just admiring the problem, there’s a dire need for policy entrepreneurship.

We should reject the proposition that Chinese hegemony is a fait accompli in the South China Sea and there’s nothing the United States can do to stop it. But moving the policy needle will require both clearer assessments of the strategic consequences of land reclamation, as well as creative and specific proposals for how the United States can more effectively prevent, deter and neutralize these seriously destabilizing activities.

Ely Ratner is a senior fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Follow him on twitter: @elyratner.


Contesting China’s Facts on New Ground

China’s aggressive actions to contest its excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea received a welcome if worrisome dose of realism this month, as new satellite images emerged of construction at Hughes Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Whether it is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last year, its aggressive naval posturing, its use of oil drilling to sustain a contested presence, or building new islands, China clearly is contesting areas they feel are theirs, and are going so far as to create facts on new ground to do so.

“So what?” a former Pentagon colleague asked me last week. “If China wants to build vulnerable air strips on these rocks let them–they just constitute a bunch of easy targets that would be taken out within minutes of a real contingency.” Such logic is temporally and strategically obtuse.

The point of these activities is not to build castles in the sand from which to position military assets like ships, aircraft, radar installations, or batteries of anti-ship missiles (though they may do all of these things). The real purpose is to create a permanent presence that will force other actors to change their daily behavior.

It’s worth remembering the original logic (at least from the Pentagon perspective) of undertaking the rebalance to Asia. The purpose was to be operationally resilient in northeast Asia while becoming more geographically distributed in Southeast Asia. The latter goal has sparked a fair bit of debate and discourse.

The point of establishing a rotational presence of U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia, or stationing several U.S. Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore was not to create militarized redoubts far askance from contested areas where conflict might eventually break out, but rather to steadily build up a greater presence in Asia that, after a decade or so, would actually aggregate into something quite formidable. But more importantly, these so-called “baby steps” would—year after year and initiative after initiative—help further reinforce our key alliances, encourage new partners, and create habits of cooperation and patterns of presence that would shape competition with China in ways that would benefit U.S. interests.

That logic of this gradual rebalancing has been, if not lost than somewhat muted in recent years, as these initial “baby steps” weren’t replicated with great consistency or fanfare. That needs to change—now. China saw what we started doing and are playing the same game with more skill and urgency.

We can do more with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. Recent agreements on defense cooperation with India opens a door for possible maritime and surveillance ideas linked to the Nicobar and Andaman islands. With a more liberal approach to exporting unmanned aircraft, hopefully our allies and partners will purchase these systems and link them together into a U.S.-supported common operating picture. These ideas (and there are many more) are affordable, practical, and overlap with the real security interests of our friends in Asia.

China needs to understand that we are playing this game to win. It’s time to up our game before it’s too late.

Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served in the Pentagon and White House during the Obama Administration’s first term.


Publicize China’s Creeping Aggression and Bolster Allies

China hopes to achieve two critical goals with its reclamation program in the Spratly Islands.

First, China aims to gradually strengthen the legitimacy of its claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea. Just as it has already achieved in the nearby Paracel Islands, China hopes to establish numerous outposts in the Spratlys. After building hundreds of acres of land, China will be able to set up government offices, police garrisons, wharves, airports, tourist facilities, and housing for settlers. These facilities are traditional indicators of state authority and once permanently affixed in the South China Sea, they will bolster the basis of China’s sovereignty claim.

Second, these permanent facilities will simplify and lower the costs of China’s civilian and “white hull” law enforcement patrolling. The most urgent task for U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam is to increase the presence of their fishing, law enforcement, and coast guard patrols in order to avoid the appearance of ceding the sea to China. These land reclamation projects greatly set back the efforts of U.S. partners that are already struggling to match China’s presence.

Over $5.3 trillion of commerce flows through the South China Sea every year, $1.2 trillion of which transits U.S. ports. That is eight percent of America’s annual economic output and represents millions of U.S. jobs. Should China obtain control over this vital piece of the global commons, it could achieve unnerving leverage over Asia and undermine America’s leading role in the region and the world. It would also constitute a crippling blow to international law.

The United States needs to step up the modernization of its naval and aerospace military forces in order to ensure that military escalation will never be a winning option for China. But for now, the competition is playing out at the political, diplomatic, legal, and public diplomacy levels. There is much more the United States government and its partners in the region can do right now to publicize China’s creeping aggression and ensure that the consequences to the global commons and international law are known throughout the region and the world.

The long-standing and bipartisan U.S. policy of forbearance toward China has run its course. Resisting China’s assertions will now require a much higher tolerance for risk. That risk-taking should begin with legal, diplomatic, and public diplomacy actions where the United States, its partners, and the global community can do much more.

Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. His book “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” is now out from Naval Institute Press.


To Respond to Reclamation, Aim at China’s Strategy

U.S. policy responses to China’s current building spree in the South China Sea are far from obvious for several reasons. First, under international law, land reclamation is not strictly illegal (with the exception of China’s building at Mischief Reef, which is in the Philippines’ EEZ). Second, other Spratly claimants have reclaimed land and have airstrips in the area. China was a latecomer to the Spratlys, so it likely sees itself as playing a legitimate game of catchup. Third, Beijing views its reefs in the Spratlys as Chinese territory and has flatly rejected U.S. efforts to intervene. Furthermore, just this week, China’s semi-official media has not only acknowledged but celebrated Beijing’s “large-scale” building as “Good News for the New Year!” and fessed up to reclamation on an additional reef. This all suggests that simply calling China out on its use of this tactic is unlikely to halt it. Policymakers should focus on how they might push back against the broader strategies it serves.

China’s new Spratly outposts will bolster Beijing’s naval, coast guard, and aerial presence. This will improve its ability to monitor the southern part of the South China Sea to further its territorial and maritime claims. Some even speculate that this construction will allow China to declare a second Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) several years from now. These new, tiny bases could be washed away by a typhoon and are vulnerable to attack, so they probably wouldn’t serve much of a wartime function, but they may well allow Beijing to ratchet up peacetime pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beijing’s lightening-speed construction may also have a legal aim. The Philippines has brought China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and argues that its maritime claims are illegitimate under UNCLOS. By transforming small reefs and rocks into artificial islands, China may be trying to undercut key parts of the Philippines’ case, effectively “tampering with the evidence.” It can’t hope to “upgrade” the status of these land features because islands, by UNCLOS’s definition, must be “naturally formed.” It may, however, be able to obscure the Court’s effort to determine what their status was before China started building.

U.S. policymakers should tell China that it will not succeed in using these new outposts to coerce partners or to undercut international law. Officials should privately inform their Chinese counterparts that the United States will actively challenge a South China Sea ADIZ if Beijing declares one. Washington should continue to invest in partner capacity-building efforts, with a focus on fast-tracked improvements to allies’ maritime domain awareness capabilities. The United States should also seek to make public or furnish the Permanent Court of Arbitration with as much information as possible on the reefs and rocks on which China is currently building. These prescriptions won’t necessarily stop China from dredging, but they will buttress U.S. partnerships, freedom of the seas, and rule of law. Ultimately, Washington must grapple with the fact that this rapid-fire construction is another manifestation of Beijing’s evolving salami-slicing strategy. By design, this approach is especially difficult to engage. It is also far too consequential to set aside.

Mira Rapp-Hooper is Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a Fellow in the Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Find her on Twitter @MiraRappHooper.


It’s Time for Gray Hulls in Gray Zones

For the first time in the 21st century, the status quo in East Asia is under severe pressure. China’s so-called “gray zone” activities – most notably its confrontational air and maritime actions and its building spree in the South China Sea – undermine regional security. To date, U.S. responses have failed to deter Chinese coercion against frontline states, such as Japan and the Philippines. If the United States wishes to uphold the status quo, it will have to accept more risk in the gray zones.

China’s recent coercive actions point to the shortcomings of traditional deterrence by the United States and its allies and partners. It is time for U.S. leaders to admit this simple fact. Chinese leaders appear to believe they can continue coercive activities without incurring significant risk. U.S. leaders remain focused on constructing a cooperative relationship with China by avoiding conflicts and deescalating crises. Meanwhile, most of China’s neighbors lack the capabilities necessary to counter Chinese coercion on their own.

Chinese risk-taking, U.S. risk-aversion, and the relative weakness of China’s neighbors have resulted in a successful campaign of Chinese coercion. During the Cold War, Thomas Schelling described the importance of the “threat that leaves something to chance,” but the current U.S. approach leaves nothing to chance. When China instigates crises, U.S. actions appear designed to return to the status quo ante without imposing substantial costs on Beijing. Therefore, without a significant change in U.S. policy, Beijing is likely to continue to seize this window of opportunity to change the status quo.

If U.S. leaders are serious about countering Chinese coercion, they will have to accept more risk. For too long, Beijing has set the terms of the gray zone competition by leveraging its strengths against its neighbors’ weaknesses. Yet, despite its recent successes, China itself has many gray zone vulnerabilities. Through careful management of vertical and horizontal escalation risks, the United States can exploit these asymmetries to deter further Chinese coercion.

Raising escalation risks can be an effective deterrent if carefully designed and calibrated. U.S. policymakers should focus their counter-coercion efforts on domains in which the United States and its allies and partners hold relative advantages, whether political, military, legal, economic, financial, or diplomatic. For example, despite China’s rapid military modernization, the U.S. military retains an asymmetric advantage in maritime power projection capabilities. China has attempted to sideline U.S. naval forces by utilizing China’s robust paramilitary forces to paint involvement of U.S. gray-hulled vessels as unnecessary escalation. But in the face of mounting Chinese coercion, the United States should consider the use of gray hulls in gray zones.

China’s coercion campaign is unlikely to end without external intervention. Allowing Beijing to dictate the terms of the competition in the East and South China Seas enables continued coercion and undermines regional and international order. The time has come for the United States to stop playing along.

Zack Cooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. He can be reached on Twitter @ZackCooper.


Photo credit: Swaminathan