Home » Budget Industry » U.S. Intelligence Assessment Disputes Chinese Claims of Limited Militarization, Ceased Land Reclamation in South China Sea

U.S. Intelligence Assessment Disputes Chinese Claims of Limited Militarization, Ceased Land Reclamation in South China Sea

Chinese troops patrol disputed holding in the Spratly Islands. Photo via Reuters

Chinese troops patrol disputed holding in the Spratly Islands. Photo via Reuters

A recently revealed U.S. assessment of Chinese military capability on holdings in the South China Sea runs counter to a narrative from Beijing that weapons on the artificial islands are merely for self defense, according to the late February assessment outlined in a letter by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and obtained by USNI News.

According to the unclassified assessment, “China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region,” by next year which conflicts with claims made last year by China’s president and foreign minister.

Senior officials in Beijing have asserted over the last several months that China has stopped land reclamation in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea and would only equip the islands with only enough military firepower to defend installations on the reclaimed land and nothing more.

“Relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the island of South — Nansha [Spratly] Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the White House in September.
“We support freedom of navigation and overflight of countries according to international law and the management of differences through dialogue… We have agreed to maintain constructive communication on relevant issues.”

A month earlier, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi said China has stopped reclamation efforts in the Spratlys – the island chain of the Western coast of the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

However, those claims might not be accurate according to the unclassified assessment Clapper sent to Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“Based on the extent of land reclamation and construction activity, we assess that China has established the necessary infrastructure to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts,” read the letter.
“These capabilities could include the deployment of modern fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), and coastal defense cruise missiles, as well as increased presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface combatants and China Coast Guard (CCG) large patrol ships.”

The assessment also said that China had extended reclamation efforts past Wang’s Aug. 5 declaration that the work had ended.

On installations on Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratlys,“between that date and late October, when reclamation activity ended, China reclaimed more than 100 additional acres of land,” read the letter.

While Clapper said the work appears to have stopped between China’s artificial holdings on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief, he said there could be up to an additional 1000 acres reclaimed based on the availability of the outlying reefs.

But with the land already reclaimed, the assessment said “based on the pace and scope of construction at these outposts, China will be able to deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities and support increased [People’s Liberation Army Navy] and [China Coast Guard] presence beginning in 2016.

The increased logistics support for PLAN and CCG ships are of particular concern to neighboring countries near the Spratlys – the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. With less time to travel for resupply, Chinese maritime assets could more easily enforce disputed maritime claims for natural resources like fishing and mineral rights.

In 2014, China sent ships to protect an offshore oil platform it sent within the economic exclusion zone (EEZ) in Vietnam. The ships prevented Vietnamese authorities from getting close to the platform and gave China defacto control of the area near its long held installations in the Paracel Island chain and bases on Hainan Island.

The concern is the installations in the Spratlys will allow Chinese forces to project similar forces for longer from the Chinese mainland.


Fiery Cross Reef in September 2015. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe Photo

Fiery Cross Reef in September 2015. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe Photo

Additionally, Clapper said while there have been no sustained deployments of high-end weapon systems on the Spratly holdings, “China has constructed facilities to support the deployment of high-end military capabilities, including modern fighter aircraft,” he wrote.
“Once these facilities [in the Spratlys] are completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017, China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region,” he wrote.

Clapper’s assessment to McCain joins comments from Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris that expressed concern on China’s build up in the region.

But apart from official U.S. declaration, the increasing ease in which commercial satellite imagery has been used over the last several months by press outlets to check China on their claims has eroded Beijing’s rhetoric on its intents for its holdings in the Spratlys.

“Mr. Clapper is telling us what common sense and a lot of press has already been telling us,” Dean Cheng, an analyst specializing China at the Heritage Foundation, told USNI News on Tuesday.
“The biggest questions is: So what?”

Cheng said China has been receiving mixed messages from Washington on its South China Sea posture – a mix of concerns from officials like Kerry and Harris – but then were still invited to the U.S. Navy 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise this summer.

“It’s one thing to know and it’s another thing do something about it,” he said.

  • Curtis Conway

    The Chinese fighter aircraft that visited, and surface to air missiles at Woody Island are conspicuously missing in the report. The ASW Helo Base in the Paracel Islands was also not mentioned.

    • incredulous1

      There are many things missing in Clapper’s “assessment,” and commercially available info only illustrates that fact that the current US Admin has told him to soft peddle and downplay this. Even PACCOM Harris says we should not be inviting the PLAN to RIMPAC this year. There have been many activities that only get reported in the local Asian / South Pacific press like the PLAN shooting at Philippine civilian airevac planes, and other defacto blockades of the Philippine Navy during resupply efforts to their marines. It will be interesting to see what happens on the arrival of the Stennis and her battle group in a matter of days.

      • Hoooah

        Really ??

  • PolicyWonk

    If anyone is at all surprised by any of these developments, then they must have little knowledge of Asian history.

    You aren’t going to change thousands of years of history and tradition via a simple treaty or contract. And we cannot put the largest transfer of dual-use technology in history back in the bottle after we let it out, thereby fueling both the immense industrial/military build-up the Chinese currently have underway, and the new-found diplomatic belligerence that concerns anyone that uses the S. China Sea for shipping, or otherwise has claims on the same places that now have these artificial islands that are being rapidly militarized.

    Just ask the Russians: they sold/licensed many weapons to the Chinese, who’ve continuously re-engineered practically everything they bought and re-sold them as originals – despite the “contracts”, and “agreements”, etc., that weren’t worth the recycling value of the paper they were written on.

    • Ako Madamosiya 毛むくじゃら

      Yup, master copycat. They’ve practically copied everything and have done very well with it. The problem is they’ve stolen a lot also. I wonder when will they start inventing breakthrough technologies?

  • Michael D. Woods

    If the climate change advocates are right, their work on those islands won’t last long.

    • Tim Dolan

      Really hard to find out how far above MSL it is (is going to be), but it would appear ~3 meters is the answer, which at the current and projected rate of 3mm per year gives them about 100 years of use, not counting barriers and big storms. Plenty of time to cause problems for everyone in the region. Even if it accelerates as some predictions hold, still gives them 40+ years of use.

      They will have drained all the oil out of the area by then and not care as much. Which is really what it is all about. That and intimidating their neighbors.

    • Swiftright Right

      Climate change is probably not an issue, weather the other hand is.

      I would not want to be on those artificial sand bars at high tide after a good cyclone.

  • Don Williams

    Needed- A good East Asian tropical cyclone that hangs out for 2-3 days.

  • Ako Madamosiya 毛むくじゃら

    China was muted and well behaved when the Stennis passed by. But as soon as the Stennis finished her cruising, China launched the International Maritime Judicial Center. A counter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) who is about to make a decision regarding the lawsuit of the Philippines against China on its maritime entitlements. This Kangaroo Court aka Panda Court System has the Nine Dash Line Law system written all over. This means what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.