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Analysts: Beijing Has Long Used Military Force to Exert Dominance Over South China Sea

A naval soldier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

A naval soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

Long before Tuesday’s ruling by an international arbitration panel against it, China has been moving toward turning an international waterway such as the South China Sea “into a Caribbean” where Beijing exerts its peacetime dominance, a leading Japanese defense expert said.

Speaking at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, Tetsuo Kotani, of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Beijing “justifies [these actions, including building artificial islands from coral reefs] as defensive.”

China for several years has “emphasized the maritime domain as an area of military struggle,” Timothy Heath of the Rand Corporation added. That domain, in the Chinese view, includes the East China Sea and Taiwan as well. He noted how Beijing has built up its naval capabilities, from reforming its command structure to the massive expansion of its coast guard and the growth of its naval militia in its commercial fishing fleet. Heath said the coast guard has grown by more than 100 vessels, some larger than American Arleigh Burke destroyers, in the past decade.

This is in keeping with China’s “carrot-and-stick” approach to the region of consolidating control of areas it claims and wanting to avoid war.

China immediately rejected Tuesday’s ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the U.N.’s Convention of the Law of the Sea that Beijing did not have economic control over the rich fishing waters, which also are believed to have promising deposits of oil and natural gas.

The Philippines brought the dispute to the Hague in 2013.

The tribunal also rejected China’s claim to the so-called “nine-dash line” of control established after World War II, which takes in a much larger area. It did not rule on sovereignty claims by either country. Other counties having territorial claims in the South China Sea are Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei.

One of China’s military goals in the South China Sea, Kotani said was “to restrict and prohibit ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] by other nations,” most prominently the United States. That would effectively put the waters off limits and allow China’s ballistic missile submarines to remain undetected and undermine U.S. deterrence.

The building of the islands would also allow China to project its military power farther from the mainland.

Kotani said one model that could be followed is occurring in the East China Sea, primarily between Japan and the United States in countering Chinese moves. They include building up maritime situational awareness, working together on law enforcement, using a whole of government approach to these efforts and better interoperability of maritime systems. It also means looking at building up antisubmarine warfare capabilities.

People's Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo

People’s Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo

In the South China Sea, most nations would have a long way to match that kind of cooperation.

Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said, while the Philippines is the largest recipient of American military assistance, only Vietnam is seriously building up its deterrence capability—from fast attack craft, to corvettes and guided missile frigates and missiles from land and ship. In the process, Hanoi is transforming its coastal and inland fleet into a green-water force, he added.

While Vietnam still does not fully participate with other nations in deterrence, it is prepared to “fire back if fired on.”

Even though Indonesia’s government sees itself as a maritime nation, its latest defense White Paper remains “army-centric,” Natalie Sambhi, of the Perth USAsia Centre, said. Using its coast guard as an example of how diffused authority is, even in the maritime domain, she said, “Questions remain about its legal status” since it has overlapping jurisdiction with a host of government agencies from the national police, treasury, fisheries and the navy. She said capacity building with Jakarta should center on investing in better maritime awareness.

In the past, Indonesia has sent its navy to enforce its territorial fishing rights, Sambhi added.

While capacity-building and maritime modernization programs—from buying and building submarines to patrol craft and helicopters— do run the risk of military escalation in the region, Heath said, “I don’t see another way” to effectively deter an expansionist China.

  • John B. Morgen

    China is starting a post-Cold War arms race in the Pacific, as it tries to build more buffer island bases afar from the Chinese mainland. Again, I as have mentioned before we should be deploying large self-propelled island forts in the South China Sea; plus, advent the SEATO with Vietnam as a new addition..

    • Donald Carey

      Why bother? China’s continued production of greenhouse gasses will see their shiny, new islands go under in a few years anyway. (Actually, the Earth is scheduled to warm up anyway, just as it has done so many times before, it will happen a few years early, that’s all.)

      • John B. Morgen

        Ice melts slower than military/politics—that’s why military action is required for this situation because time/politics are [not] on our side. There’s a lot at stake, and we cannot afford to take a nap when security in the South East Asia could change overnight by the Chinese military.

        • Donald Carey

          A Tsunami could be “arranged”…

          • John B. Morgen

            Yes! Just place a nuclear bomb on the sea bed, and then allowed it to go off. Better use a submarine for deployment, along with a SEAL team. I agree.

          • Donald Carey

            The Soviets, err, um, I mean the Russians, say they have an autonomous device that can do that from 1,000′ s of miles away.

          • John B. Morgen

            The United States can do the same thing what the Russians could do. We got the nuclear weapons that could do the tasks, so could any other nuclear power.

          • Donald Carey

            Re-read my post – there is no need for a sub or any Seals.

          • John B. Morgen

            I don’t really know what type of [“autonomous device’] the Russians might have because the only device that I know that could easily do the job is a nuclear bomb. I have [not] heard anything like this before; although, I have heard about ideas of planting nuclear bombs on sea beds, for destroying island military bases or damaging sea-coast harbors.

      • simon yip

        It’s interesting to see how much effort and money that China is putting into new energy sources, hydro, wind turbines, solar and biofuels.

        • Donald Carey

          As a percent of their total energy use it’s merely a showpiece, but, like the rest of the world, they will have to do something as fossil fuel reserves get used up.
          b.t.w., solar also has a heat penalty due to the changed albedo (how much light is absorbed which means less is reflected back into space which turns into heat). A solar farm in the desert is much darker than the desert sands and so you get more heat added to the planet – TANSTAAFL.

    • simon yip

      I think that we should look at things from both sides, and I believe that the Chinese understand that a nation with a weak military will be bullied by others. It is ironic that many westerners accuse China of bullying in the South China Sea, yet many Chinese people accuse the US, Japan, etc of exactly the thing.

  • olesalt

    China will continue to bully small nations unless the US takes the lead with Japan & others to stop Chinese aggressive actions, with a coalition of democratic forces like SEATO previously. “The East is Red” has never been abandoned by China since Mao’s time – the South China Sea is now claimed to be “Red” with complete disregard of UN International UNCLOS rulings.