On May 2nd 2014, tensions dangerously escalated in the South China Sea (SCS) after China’s HYSY 981 oil rig began its drilling operation in an area within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. While the HYSY 981 event has become the focal point of SCS developments at the moment, there are signs of another alarming threat to this region’s peace and stability. News from various sources shows that China is quietly attempting to build an artificial island upon the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. Furthermore, Beijing is also planning similar activities in several other reefs of this archipelago. This is a dangerous intrigue and might give China significant advantages in SCS disputes.
Almost two weeks after the HYSY 981 oil rig started its drilling operation, on May 13th 2014, the Philippines provided images of China’s personnel reclaiming land on Johnson South Reef, clearly to build an aircraft runway. Then, on June 4th 2014, Phil Star quoted Philippines President Benigno Aquino III saying he has received reports of movements by Chinese supply ships near at least two more reefs, Gavin and Cuarteron. According to a confidential report, China is also doing land reclamation activities in the Hughes and Eldad Reef.
Moreover, Jin Canrong, international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing even revealed to the South China Morning Post that a proposed expansion of the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys has been submitted to the Chinese central government. The artificial island would be at least double the 44km2 size of the US military base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The proposed expansion, according to Phil Star, will cost China $5 billion USD and would take 10 years to complete, similar to the construction of a 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Beijing’s intrigue to construct artificial islands in the Spratly Islands is a major step in its plan to boost its military power there. Since 1988, China has illegally occupied at least 9 reefs in this archipelago. For the purpose of military stationing or for other purposes, China has been gradually constructing and expanding artificial structures on those reefs. However, most of the structures built are reef fortresses and supply platforms since the tiny area of those reefs has prevented China from building airstrips or sea ports. Only the Fiery Cross Reef could be considered as a semi artificial island since it has a command headquarters and a helicopter landing pad.
Therefore, even though China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) navy is superior to those of the SCS claimant states, it may have some potential weaknesses and disadvantages in case of conflict in the Spratly Archipelago. The distance from Hainan Island’s Yulin base to the Spratlys is 580 miles, considerably further compared to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh base (250 miles) or the Philippines’ Puerto Princesa base (310 miles). As a result, China may find it more difficult to deploy and maintain a large number of military vessels and aircrafts in the Spratlys than in the Paracels. Moreover, the aircraft handling capability of PLA’s Liaoning carrier is still being tested and the carrier is vulnerable against submarines such as Vietnam’s Kilo class. An artificial island built upon the Fiery Cross Reef could act as a permanent and more effective aircraft carrier in the heart of the SCS.
In a press conference in Beijing on June 6th 2014, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei insisted that China’s action in the Spratlys “has nothing to do with the Philippines.” However, other SCS claimant states have valid grounds to be deeply concerned by China’s ambition to build artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. If the airstrips in Fiery Cross and Johnson South Reefs are completed, the PLA air force will be able to reach not only all parts of the Spratlys but also China’s neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
According to the Philippines former National Security Adviser, Roilo Golez, Chinese jets can easily reach the entire Philippines, Vietnam and parts of Malaysia within Fiery Cross’s 1,000-mile radius. Consequently, the national security of these countries will be seriously threatened. Furthermore, a chain of artificial islands in the Spratlys will form a block allowing China to strengthen its air and maritime surveillance in the SCS. Like Roilo Golez said, China will then have a strong incentive to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the SCS, similar to the one in the East China Sea.
China’s plan will also be conducive to its intention to become a naval superpower. Beijing is showing off not only the military capability of PLA but also China’s new generation of modern submersible oil rigs (HYSY 981, under-construction HYSY 982, HYSY 943 and HYSY 944), capable of drilling in most parts of the SCS. There is a possibility that China might adopt an “oil rig salami slicing” strategy: to gradually send oil rigs southward from the Paracels into the waters surrounding Spratly Islands. The construction of airstrips and sea ports in the South Chia Sea, along with more aircraft carriers (China is also building another aircraft carrier, estimated to be completed by 2018) will ensure that in case China sends oil rigs into the region, none of the other SCS claimant states dare to militarily stand against Beijing’s action. Therefore, China can carry out its plan to extract resources in the Spratlys with confidence.
Even the Indonesians may have reasons to be worried. In China’s 2009 nine-dash line submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), the area that China claimed does not include Natuna Islands of Indonesia. However, on March 18th 2014, Commodore Fahru Zaini of the Indonesian navy told Antara News that a new map on Chinese passports encompasses part of the Natuna waters, raising the attention of Indonesian officials. This may be a sign of Beijing’s ambition to expand from the Spratly to further south. Thus, China’s artificial islands plan in the Spratly Archipelago will raise deep concerns from Jakarta. Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and even the Malacca Strait are well within the 1,000 miles radius of the Fiery Cross Reef. Beijing may also want to increase its control from the Malacca Strait towards the South China Sea in order to reduce its seaborne energy supply vulnerability.
From the analysis above, it is obvious that the construction of airstrips and sea ports in this archipelago may give China significant advantages in any SCS dispute. However, it will also be a sign of Beijing violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC) and trying to change the status quo of the SCS in its favor. Over the past few years, China has made many efforts to persuade the world of its peaceful rise. Yet, on the contrary, Beijing’s actions are seen by its neighbor and the international community as provocative and threatening towards regional peace and stability.
Recently, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wang Guanzhong’s speech aimed to send a message that China is not the one who stirs up trouble and tension in the region. It seems that this message was not well received. Rather than dismissing the concerns of its neighbors as part of a political conspiracy, China should come to understand how its own actions contribute to the perception of a Chinese threat, as evident in its plan to construct artificial islands in the Spratly Archipelago. Beijing’s message of peaceful rise should be proven in words and deeds accordingly.