Island Diplomacy: China's Militarization of the South China Sea

The revelation of Chinese deployments of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) systems on an artificially "reclaimed" island in the Paracel island chain is troubling. It marks a significant escalation in an ongoing campaign to expand Chinese power in the region, callously ignoring the interests and fears or its smaller neighbors and openly challenging U.S. commitments to maintain freedom of navigation in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. While the net effect of the deployment will not alter the balance of power in the region in the short-term, it is nevertheless an unambiguous signal of Beijing's longer-run intentions and should dispel much of the self-serving but increasingly empty cooperative rhetoric that has colored much of China's diplomacy for the past two decades.

At the root of the current crisis is China's claim of the entire South China Sea as sovereign Chinese territory despite the claims of other states including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. While such claims are dubious in terms of geographic proximity, history, and objective common sense assessments, Beijing rigidly adheres to the assertion that the area has been China's for "hundreds" of years, in some cases even resorting to the tautological argument that the region in question is known as the South China Sea after all, to support claims of possession.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping--like his predecessors--has repeatedly expressed a desire to avoid the so-called "Thucydides Trap," in which rising powers inevitably end up in conflict and even major war with existing hegemonic power and its status quo allies. As he said in Washington last September, Beijing seeks "to work with the United States to build the new model of major-country relationship without conflict, without confrontation, with mutual respect and win-win cooperation is a priority in China's foreign policy."

However, Chinese policy under Xi, who by all accounts has consolidated power to an extent not seen since Deng Xiaoping, reflects little concern with avoiding a potential conflict, but instead has been singularly focused on expanding Chinese power and ultimately prevailing in a conflict. The rhetoric and reality of Chinese policy vis-à-vis its neighbors and the United States has rarely been so disconnected in recent memory. Three sets of activities underscore how far China's behavior has veered from its diplomacy.

First, the reclamation activities in both the Paracel and Spratly chains have been remarkable. While smaller neighbors like Vietnam have engaged in some land reclamation activities, nothing has approached the scale and scope of China's building program, allowing Bejing to not simply change "facts on the ground," but the actual geography of the region in its favor. Second, while China has consistently affirmed its commitment to peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts with its smaller neighbors, it has rejected attempts to address the various disputes in multilateral or regional forums and has bristled against any perception of the United States as supporting the claims of the Philippines or Vietnam and thus undermining its bilateral leverage against much weaker adversaries.

Moreover, while China has not utilized military force in recent years to resolve these issues (as it did in its seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and Johnson Reef in the Spratly chain in 1988), its persistent use of nonmilitary coercion against countries like the Philippines (not to mention its clashes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayou Islands in 2012) reflects a willingness to engage in reckless and risky behavior in potentially volatile situations.

Finally, the recent deployment of missiles clearly violates the commitment made by President Xi during his summit with President Obama in September 2015 to avoid militarizing the South China Sea. Taken in consideration with the construction of facilities that seem designed to support advanced radar and surveillance capabilities and runways for strike and transport aircraft, the non-militarization pledge seems hollow on its face.

Of course Chinese officials have complained about the United States activities in the region, particularly so-called Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy last fall. Beijing can attempt to frame the issue to play the aggrieved party, but it rings hollow. The United States is not attempting to alter the existing situation in the South China Sea. In the abstract, FON operations may seem provocative in deliberately traversing maritime areas in close proximity to sensitive or controversial sovereign maritime boundaries, but it was the unilateral (and provocative) transformation of previously uninhabited geographic features in disputed territorial waters into bustling islands with potential for military activities that necessitated a U.S. response. It is apparent that China is attempting to alter the status quo in its periphery; a quest many rising powers have attempted, often leading to costly and self-defeating conflict. Given the pattern of behavior we have witnessed over the past few years, it seems that President Xi and the leadership in Beijing is much more focused on preparing for a military conflict and improving China's prospects to prevail, rather than avoiding one. Cooperative rhetoric to the contrary simply is no longer credible.

The United States, its regional allies, and other interested parties have little reason to take further Chinese policy statements with anything more than a grain of salt. China should be expected to continue to "militarize" its holdings in the Paracel and Spratly island chains, exploiting its geographic alterations to transform the South China Sea into a Chinese "lake." Such a policy threatens the security of China's neighbors (including key U.S. allies) and the free navigation of critical sea lanes and undermines regional stability.

The development of a robust, well-coordinated, and effective diplomatic and political-military response to this Chinese campaign to overturn the status quo in the South China Sea is vitally important, and should be a top priority for the next U.S. presidential administration. But as the scale and speed of China's militarization program reflect, time may not be on Washington's side.