Imagery released earlier this month indicates that China has nearly completed construction of several facilities in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross Reef has hangars, mobile missile shelters, and radar arrays. Mischief and Subi reefs house similar structures. In total, the Spratly Islands can now accommodate 72 combat aircraft and about 15 larger planes including bombers, transporters, and refueling aircraft.
It’s unclear what specific military aircraft may be deployed to the hotly contested region. However, China is sending a strong message to its rival claimants that it intends to hold on to vast swaths of disputed territory. The PRC’s message is clear: We are here to stay. The message is also being heard in Washington, where the new administration of President Donald Trump appears determined to ensure that freedom of navigation is respected.
Tensions in the region appear to have tapered off slightly in the last few weeks. However, the recently completed construction in the Spratlys is likely to cause alarm among policymakers in Washington and other countries with strategic interests in the disputed waters.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang recently said: “China’s facilities, Chinese islands and reefs, are primarily for civilian purposes and, even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation.” For the moment, Li’s comments should be taken literally. It should also be welcome news that China supports freedom of navigation — nearly US$5 trillion in goods are shipped through the South China Sea annually.
The United States would be wise to refrain from public protest and work directly with Beijing to determine its intentions. Simultaneously, US intelligence assets in the area should continue to monitor construction efforts and verify whatever resources (commercial or military) are moved into the region.
China’s huge naval fleet, coupled with forward-deployed aircraft, will allow the world’s second-largest economy to flex its muscles more assertively in the future. Rival claimants have inferior military capabilities and would be unable to adequately defend themselves in a military conflict.
The international community should not formulate policy based on the possibility of a “militarized” South China Sea. It’s also important for policymakers to define what militarization really means. Concern for militarization should be predicated on the number of military assets in the region. For now, hangars appear to be empty, and intelligence imagery will identify and confirm the types and capabilities of military hardware moved into the Spratly Islands.
The US will continue to enjoy military superiority in the region for the foreseeable future. However, this advantage should not sway policymakers from closely monitoring tensions in the South China Sea. For now, China appears to be honoring the long-standing policy of freedom of navigation.
China will continue to leverage its military presence in the region to ensure resources such as oil and natural gas remain accessible. Meanwhile, Beijing and Washington should continue to seek diplomatic solutions to reduce tensions in the region.