Some analysts argue that China’s new artificial land formations in the South China Sea are not worth worrying about as they could be easily “taken out” if war broke out. But those who take that view are failing to see how these islands fit into China’s slow motion strategy to achieve regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
Since the United States and others throughout the region seek to maximize cooperation with a reemerging China while minimizing conflict, we are caught between a rock and a hard place with respect to brash acts of forcefulness such as the creation of artificial islands. China is well on its way to doubling the preexisting land mass in the South China Sea, seeking to make its ambiguous nine-dashed line claim to most of the sea—– which, in its most expansive forms, the U.S. government has stated has no basis in international law—a de facto reality. Beijing also refuses to participate in the current case lodged by the Philippines before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, thereby calling into question China’s interest in abiding by international law. Australian academic Alan Dupont describes what China is trying to do as terraforming its way to control over the South China Sea. China’s strategic intent may be as simple as a desire to exercise greater capability over its near seas, consistent with its growing power and confidence and infused by a sense of historical injustice, nationalism, and political exigency.
It is interesting to listen to Chinese officials struggle to explain their assertive actions. One line of argument is that China is building up submerged land features to sustain ports and runways as a global public good. Indeed, said Admiral Wu Shengli, China would be happy to open up the artificial islands for international cooperation, such as for humanitarian assistance and search and rescue, “when the conditions are right.” Yet another line of argument is that previous actions undertaken by Vietnam and the Philippines require China to build up its own facilities, even though the scale of what China has done is an order of magnitude beyond what other neighbors have done. Moreover, in keeping with China’s desire to issue ambiguous and plausibly denial threats, at least one Chinese official has said that the facilities on these submerged features and rocks were essential to help maintain “the quality of life for soldiers”—i.e., hinting to U.S. officials that they intend to build up radars, runways, docking facilities, and military garrisons on these outposts.
One does not have to gain access to classified People’s Liberation Army plans to understand the potential purpose of such island fortifications: they extend Chinese power projection capability, and they erode American power projection capability. In the event of Chinese attempts to coerce Taiwan, for instance, the United States will have a far more difficult time demonstrating support for Taiwan than it did during the 1995-1996 crisis, when it was able to dispatch two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait with relative ease. Moreover, the potential runways and other facilities in the Spratlys and Paracels create the infrastructure that will give China a genuine ability to try to impose air and sea control, not to mention an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). When China suddenly declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea in November 2013, it was not long before it was obvious that China could not enforce such a declared area. Through land reclamation, the PLA will be more able to impose control over who can go where in the South China Sea, thereby raising future costs on U.S. attempts to patrol in international waters within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Significantly, China will be better poised to create a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) sanctuary, something it may wish to establish as part of an enhanced nuclear posture. An SSBN bastion strategy would provide China with a more survivable, mobile nuclear deterrent force capable of threatening the United States with an assured second-strike capability. Though the aim is not to use nuclear weapons, the main effect could be to undermine America’s nuclear umbrella over regional allies, thereby hastening the pace of Chinese dominance over the region. Here in Asia, as elsewhere, perceptions often matter as much or more than reality.
A few former U.S. officials and noted experts contend that the United States must not let the actions in the South China Sea hijack our broader relations with China. I agree. Rather than making this a debate about whether or not to accommodate a rising China, we ought to view the problem as whether and how to draw the line on certain types of bad behavior. Paradoxically, the way to let the South China Sea hijack the relationship is to view U.S.-China security competition there as emblematic of larger ties, rather than as a singular if large point of contention therein. Moreover, the risk of a catastrophic fissure resulting from U.S. efforts to stand up against destabilizing actions is small, because China itself still values the U.S.-China relationship and does not want a fracture.
My colleagues should instead consider the consequences of not standing up for international norms or for allies and partners. If misdeeds and bad behavior incur no penalties, if actions have no consequences, then there is very little incentive for any power to bother with standards, codes of conduct, and international law. In other words, the challenge is not the risk of war (as opposed to inadvertent incidents, which remain all too real a problem), but rather how to embrace the contradiction of mostly supporting U.S.-China cooperation while sometimes lowering the boom when it comes to clarifying what constitutes violations of regional norms.
The real risk is that an unchecked China will realize domination of its near seas. A disconcerting hint at such a future can be found in the 2012 crisis over Scarborough Shoal, in which the Philippines’ efforts to apprehend some Chinese boats fishing in waters claimed by Manila escalated into a months-long standoff between Chinese and Filipino naval forces. In that instance, Washington walked its Filipino allies down and convinced Manila to de-escalate, only to see China move back in to exercise permanent control over the disputed shoal, which lies well within the EEZ of the Philippines. Privately, some scholars in China speak of this as a model for extended coercion of the United States – effectively pressuring a U.S. ally while keeping Washington at bay. Efforts to replicate this model would only benefit from the military infrastructure now being developed by China on its reclaimed land. From this vantage point, we appear ready to let China hijack the South China Sea out of the untested fear that Beijing will forfeit its interest in cooperation with the United States and other regional states.
The rules governing the Asia-Pacific matter. China’s recent pattern of behavior suggests that Beijing will indeed limit America’s integration into the world’s most dynamic region. Access to the global commons will be determined by China. While China talks win-win, it often behaves as if that means that China wins twice.
The United States alone can mobilize the region to preserve and adapt rules fair to all nations. Helping China grow its middle class is good, but letting China create military bases on artificial islands is bad. Helping China and the region understand the distinction will be one of the crucial tasks of statecraft in the coming years.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.
Photo credit: Swaminathan