Asia’s troubled waters: Chinese advances in the South China Sea
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Satellite images show radar construction on China’s manmade island above Cuarteron Reef. And one US think tank says this is even more threatening than missiles. A US think tank says satellite images show China building a new high-frequency radar system in the Spratly Islands, a move intended to boost their control of the region.
What’s going on in the South China Sea? Is China installing a high-tech radar system in the South China Sea?
A recent report released by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative says overhead images of the artificial island above Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea from January to mid-February show two probable radar towers and a number of 65-foot poles. CSIS warns this could be a significant step in a long-term Chinese plan to assert control over the air and sea lanes of the disputed South China Sea.
China has been asserting their control over one of the world’s busiest waterways for decades, saying their claim has been indisputable since the Xia and Han dynasties. Neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan all have overlapping claims to the area, where more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and likely holds billions of barrels of oil.
China has sent fighter jets to a disputed island in the South China Sea, where it deployed surface-to-air missiles earlier this month, U.S. government sources said on Tuesday.
China’s missiles in the South China Sea create a sort of panic situation for the region as China regularly sends jets to Woody Island, part of the Paracel archipelago controlled by Beijing. No one had any doubts about China’s intentions to militarize the South China Sea when the Chine military occupied and began building certain structures there, making the regional powers became nervous and objected to the China’s designs.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea rose after a Fox News report that the Chinese military had apparently placed advanced HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, in the Paracel group of islands. The claim, which was quickly taken up by the American and international media, accused Chinese leaders of “increasingly ‘militarizing’ its islands in the South China Sea.”
The Pentagon claims evidence of HQ-9 missile batteries on the island—a claim also made by Taiwan’s defence ministry. While not confirming the presence of the missiles, the Chinese Ministry of Defence noted that its navy and air force had kept forces in the Paracels for many years. At a press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointedly remarked that “non-militarization is certainly in the interests of all parties, but non-militarization should not be just about one single country.”
Strategic experts say if these poles signal radar installation as the report suggests, the new system would significantly bolster China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic across the southern portion of the South China Sea. And the Asian giant has escalated its claims to the region in the past year, by building seven small new islands and raising fears that China is militarizing the South China Sea. Just last week, Chinese surface-to-air missiles were found on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands, which Beijing claims are simply defense systems to protect their manned islands.
While that move was condemned, says CSIS, new radar facilities being developed in the Spratleys, on the other hand, could significantly change the operational landscape. The radar system will allow Chinese forces to detect both ship and air traffic. China already has significant radar coverage on the mainland and nearby Paracel Islands, explains CSIS, but a radar system on the Cuateron reef is crucial because it would unilaterally access busy straits and channels. All three of these capabilities “speak to a long-term anti-access strategy by China – one that would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.” CSIS says South China Sea rivals can expect Chinese radar systems at the Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson South reefs as well.
Much of the media coverage of the latest missile revelations is just as exaggerated and deliberately misleading. The Paracels and the Spratlys are conflated; images of Chinese missiles are shown alongside photographs of land reclamation in the Spratlys; and the history of the disputes in the South China Sea is either ignored or distorted.
Unlike the Spratlys, where it is a relative newcomer, China has occupied Woody Island since 1956—that is, for 60 years—and controlled all of the Paracels since 1974, when it seized the remaining islands in the group from South Vietnam. At the time, North Vietnam recognised Chinese sovereignty of the Paracels, a claim that Vietnam has disputed since 1982, following its war with China in 1979.
Woody Island is the largest of the Paracels and has been used by China as an administrative centre. While President Xi Jinping gave an undertaking to Obama not to militarize the Spratlys, he gave no commitment on the Paracels. Indeed, the Chinese military has long maintained a small garrison on Woody Island and has flown fighter jets to its airstrip. China has sent air-defence missiles to the Paracels in the past.
Woody Island, one of northernmost of the Paracel group, is barely more than 300 kilometres from key Chinese naval bases on Hainan Island, which is just off the Chinese mainland. Its proximity highlights the real purpose of the Pentagon’s “freedom of navigation” operations, which is to maintain its “right” to place US warships virtually anywhere outside the immediate 12-nautical-mile limit off the Chinese coastline.
Improved radar coverage is an important piece of the puzzle – along with improved air defenses and greater reach for Chinese aircraft – toward China’s goals of establishing effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the nine-dash line. The nine-dash line refers to maps used since 1947 by China and Taiwan to claim certain islands in the region.
China says their actions are entirely legal and appropriate. “Most people in this area recognize that the facilities that China has constructed are primarily for strategic reasons. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore: “But that’s how China will spin it.”
In a press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the media should focus on the islands’ lighthouses and weather forecast stations, instead of the country’s “limited and necessary national defense facilities” in the region. Because as the biggest coastal state in the South China Sea, China is “providing goods and services to the international community,” says Wang. Despite last week’s missile installations and this week’s radar systems, China says their activities in the South China Sea are exclusively for civilian purposes. And any defensive facilities practiced on the islands are a mere exercise of self-defense as allowed in international law.
China wants its fellow UN veto member USA to stay out of the South China Sea dispute, while other regional powers plead for US intervention. Beijing complains that constant US close-in patrols of the region are the only reason there has been greater local tension in recent years.
Last month, after a US Navy patrol near the Triton Island, the US State Department indicated that was exercising its international rights to send ships through the area: “The excessive Chinese claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention”. The purpose of US naval patrols in the area, is to assert “freedom of navigation” (FON), “to ensure that US naval, coast guard, and civilian ships, and by extension those of all nations, maintain unrestricted access to their rights at sea,” while doing so in such a manner that averts military conflict with China.
Starting last October, the USA has been directly challenging Chinese maritime claims in the region by sending warships and military aircraft within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit surrounding Chinese-administrated islets. On January 30, the destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, intruded into water surrounding Triton Island in the Paracels.
Over the past five years, the Obama government has deliberately transformed the longstanding maritime disputes in the region into a dangerous global flashpoint. Washington has exploited the tensions to forge closer military ties with countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and justify its own military build-up as part of the “pivot to Asia” against China. US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday again demanded that there should be “no militarization” of the South China Sea.
Speaking after a two-day US-ASEAN summit in California, President Barack Obama called for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions. He repeated US demands for “a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization.” Foreshadowing further military challenges to Chinese territorial claims, Obama declared the USA would continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and “we will support the right of all countries to do the same.”
The response of the Chinese leadership to the US “pivot,” on the one hand, has been to try to appease Washington and, on the other, to engage in a dangerous arms race, which can only end in catastrophe for the civilians in China and internationally. However, the chief responsibility for this drive to war lies with US imperialism.
USA is recklessly using its military might to maintain its dominance in Asia and around the world and using the regional powers in South Asia and Asia pacific against China.
Last month, the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), released a report commissioned by the Defence Department that could only be described as a blueprint for war against China. It complained about Beijing’s increased “tolerance of risk” in the face of Washington’s confrontational “pivot”—in other words, China’s refusal to buckle to US demands. The report called for a huge military expansion in Asia, not only by the United States, but all its allies and strategic partners.
Whether or not the missile claims are true, the western stories have the character of a provocation concocted within sections of the US military and intelligence establishment that have been critical of the Obama governance for not being aggressive enough in asserting against Russia and China its military super power.
The Pentagon wants to conduct more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea. The P8-A Poseidon surveillance flight over Chinese-administered islets in the Spratly group would provide breathless footage highlighting China’s land reclamation activities.
Such operations are in line with the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle plans for war against China, which envisage massive air and missile attacks launched from bases, submarines and aircraft carriers in the western Pacific to destroy China’s military, industrial and communications infrastructure. Washington wants to cut off vital Chinese imports of energy and raw materials from Africa and the Middle East.