Fortifying the Great Wall of Sand


A drumbeat of reporting in recent months has cast a sudden spotlight on China’s aggressive actions aimed at expanding its influence in the South China Sea. Numerous accounts have highlighted China’s frenetic efforts to construct artificial islands in the Spratlys, a tiny cluster of islets 660 miles from mainland China. China is building a large airfield on the biggest of these reclaimed isles that will have significant military utility once finished. Moreover, in April, U.S. surveillance satellites detected two Chinese motorized artillery pieces on one of the islands.

The combination of these developments should raise red flags. Almost all of the other countries with claims in the South China Sea have built outposts there, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. But China has “gone much further and much faster” than any other country, according to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. The other states in the region have not pursued their goals with such vigor, scale, and clear military characteristics. China has reportedly reclaimed more than 2,000 acres, which one U.S. official described as “more land than all other claimants combined over the history of their claims.” Admiral Harry Harris, who was recently confirmed as the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, colorfully described China as building a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea.

China’s ultimate intentions for these islands have not been entirely clear. Chinese officials emphasize that their land reclamation efforts are for civilian purposes, such as maritime search and rescue, disaster response, and scientific research. But they also stress their long-standing claim that the islands are Chinese territory, and that they can be used to protect Chinese territorial sovereignty and maritime claims.

The detection of the Chinese artillery marks a major development because it is the first time that Chinese long-range weaponry has been observed on any of China’s rapidly growing islands. Although the artillery pieces were only visible to U.S. satellites for a couple of days (they were subsequently hidden or removed), it remains a particularly provocative move because the only military reason to put artillery on an island is to defend it. U.S. officials were quick to downplay the threat posed by the Chinese artillery. They stressed that these weapons would not threaten any U.S. ships or planes, though they were within range of some nearby islands — including one that Vietnam has claimed and armed. Nonetheless, one U.S. official described the artillery as posing “no military threat. It’s about the symbolism.”

But symbolism matters, and this move by China carries a clear strategic message. It signals that China is increasingly deploying military capabilities to defend its claims in the South China Sea with military force.

Actions such as these, and increasingly assertive rhetoric from Beijing, are fueling concerns that the islands can and will be used for military purposes. For example, the United States and its allies and partners in the region have been particularly concerned about China’s activities on Fiery Cross Reef. It is now 11 times larger than its natural size (and three times larger than any other island in the South China Sea), and China is building a 10,000-foot runway that will be capable of accommodating any Chinese military aircraft. And just a couple of weeks ago, Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China could set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea if the threat were large enough. Though some experts question whether China would have the capability to do so, the admiral’s comments reveal that China is starting to consider this airspace part of its defensive perimeter.

How should the United States respond to this developing but significant potential threat — one aimed not just at upending unfettered access to a huge body of international waters and airspace, but that may also directly threaten U.S. allies and partners that border the South China Sea and beyond?

Diplomatically, the United States needs to continue to emphasize the international rules of the road regarding freedom of navigation and open access to international waters and airspace. It should continue to categorically challenge Chinese claims to sovereignty from these newly created islets — and particularly dispute the legitimacy of China’s assertions of its rights to establish an ADIZ over artificial islands that warrant no sovereign rights of this nature under international maritime law. Publicly, repeatedly and pointedly rebuffing these Chinese claims must remain a cornerstone of U.S. policy — and the U.S. government needs to continue to marshal its regional and international allies and friends to do the same.

At the same time, the United States needs to continue to urge the other South China Sea claimants to stop their land reclamation efforts as well, in order to establish a consistent principle as well as deescalate the current situation. During his speech at Shangri-La, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” and during a stop in Vietnam the next day, he stated that he would raise this issue directly in his discussions with Vietnamese officials. He and other U.S. officials need to maintain this firm and even-handed stance.

Economically, the United States has many levers — but so do the Chinese. While the United States often uses economic tools of statecraft (such as sanctions) to try to affect the behavior of other countries, it is not clear that they would be effective in dealing with China. China and the United States remain each other’s second-largest trading partners, and China was only recently surpassed by Japan as the largest holder of U.S. debt. American industry relies on burgeoning Chinese markets, and is highly sensitive to U.S. policies that could lead China to restrict access to its population. Any punitive U.S. economic policies could rapidly escalate out of control into a trade war that could end up harming the United States just as much as, if not more than, China. It would also likely harm U.S. friends and allies in the region, for whom China is the single largest source of imports and one of the leading destinations for exports. This means that the United States should not try to affect Chinese behavior in the South China Sea primarily through economic measures.

Militarily, the United States must move cautiously but deliberately to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the internationally recognized waters of the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation has been a bedrock principle of U.S. national security strategy for decades, and at Shangri-La, Secretary Carter reaffirmed that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Carter has reportedly asked his staff to prepare military options for doing so, including sailing U.S. Navy ships within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands and flying surveillance aircraft over them as well. The U.S. government should approve and routinely conduct such operations in order to ensure open access throughout the South China Sea. These operations should be conducted transparently (and often predictably) in order to minimize the chances of confrontation and unexpected military brushes with Chinese naval ships and civilian vessels.

Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea need not lead to outright conflict in this key strategic region. But at the same time, the United States must respond early, visibly, and in concert with regional partners to China’s inexorable moves to exert sovereignty across long-recognized international waters and airspace. Chinese intentions in the South China Sea may have been ambiguous in the past, but they are becoming increasingly clear. A strong diplomatic and military response now, led by the United States, would make clear that China faces a unified set of nations standing up for the norms of international law — and would set an important foundation for the United States and its partners to further challenge China if its provocative and destabilizing actions continue unabated.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.