By: Our Correspondent

Military analysts now believe that China dominates the South China Sea militarily to the extent that it would prevail in any situation other than an all-out war with the United States, according to a report by the Manila-based country risk firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments.

“A series of reports over the past several months indicate that China has deployed new military capabilities to the contested Spratly Islands and the West Philippines Sea, including anti-ship and surface to air missiles.  military capabilities to the contested Spratly Islands and the West Philippines Sea, including anti-ship and surface to air missiles,” according to the report, available on a subscriber-only basis..

Since 2009, China has been using a so-called “Nine-Dash Line” that originated with the Chinese Nationalists in the 1940s to claim virtually the entire South China Sea almost to the shores of the littoral nations despite the fact that there are countervailing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, which have all officially protested over the use of such a line. In 2013, China extended those claims with a new “ten-dash” map that extends to the east of Taiwan, outside of the South China Sea.

Beijing ignored a 2016 ruling by the International Court of Arbitration on a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that occupation of a flock of islets and below-tide specks in the South China Sea was illegal. Despite the victory, newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte weakened his country’s case, saying it would take a “back seat” in his relations with China.

Since that time, China has stepped up its development and miltary deployments in the Spratly Islands, the majority of which are claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone.    

The PSA report points out that the seven features occupied by China, all which began as natural rocks or reefs, “have been augmented since 2015 to be the most developed and heavily occupied features in the West Philippine Sea.  The largest Chinese occupied feature, Mischief Reef, is approximately 9 km across, and is now bristling with construction including a 2.66 km runway.  By comparison, Thitu Island occupied by the Philippines is 1.25 kilometers across at its manmade runway.”

The three most heavily developed reefs by the Chinese are referred to as the “Big Three”, consisting of Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

Thitu or Pag-asa Island (Philippine Occupied) approximately 1.25 KM across at the longest point- November 29, 2017 – Credit Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

Mischief Reef (Chinese Occupied) approximately 9km across with an approximate 2.66km runway- October 31, 2017, Credit Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Here are conclusions of the PSA report:

“In early April 2018, according to the report, quoting news sources, US military officials stated that China had deployed military communications and radar jamming equipment to Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.   The report included satellite images purchased from Digital Globe, which reportedly shows an erected antenna mast.   CSIS/AMTI confirmed the presence of jamming systems in satellite imagery from at least mid-February to early May.  

“On May 9, CSIC/AMTI published satellite imagery of military Y-7 and Y-8 transport aircraft on Subi and Mischief reef.   These photos are supported by Chinese and Philippine media reports.  Chinese media indicated that Y-8 aircraft landed on Subi Reef in March 2018 to evacuate a Chinese fisherman in need of medical assistance.  Meanwhile the Philippines Daily Inquirer published aerial photographs showing Y-7 transport aircraft on Mischief Reef (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/165824/china-military-planes-land-ph-reef).  

“On May 2, CNBC reported that based upon confidential sources within the US intelligence community China had installed Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and surface to air missiles to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. The cruise missiles were identified as YJ-12Bs, with a reported range of 295 miles.  The surface to air missiles were reported as HQ-9Bs, with a reported range of 160 nautical miles. In February 2017, Reuters reported that China had constructed structures to house surface to air missiles on all three reefs, claims that were later supported with commercial satellite imagery purchased by CSIS/AMTI.  

“Based upon satellite imagery, CSIS/AMTI reported a heightened Chinese naval, coast guard, and fishing fleet presence operating in the Spratlys and regularly visiting Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.  Satellite imagery is less insightful for mobile forces like these, but CSIS/AMTI identifies eight types of Chinese naval vessels utilizing the reefs along with seven types of coast guard vessels.  On March 27, 2018, Reuters posted satellite imagery of at least 40 Chinese vessels, along with the aircraft carrier Liaoning, in the northern portion of the South China Sea off the coast of Hainan.  The demonstration appears to be a show of force meant to display China’s willingness to deploy its the most advanced naval assets to the South China Sea. Often these assets are centered around Dalian in the East China Sea. 

“CSIS/AMTI argues that the buildup follows a similar pattern to more extensive military deployments and build up in the Paracels during 2016 and 2017.  Satellite imagery from 2016 and 2017 and along with video and pictures release by the Chinese military confirmed the presence of J-11B Fighter aircraft on Woody Island in the Paracels for military exercises.    YJ-62 Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles were first reported by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly on Woody Island in 2016, based upon Chinese social media posts.  CSIS/AMTI reports that the construction and deployments in the Spratlys are following the same pattern.

Reaction to Recent Developments

  • United States

“As a whole, the United States’ analytical community is of a growing opinion that China dominates the South China Sea militarily in any situation other than a full-on war with the United States.  Previously, most analysts had considered the Chinese outposts merely as vulnerable positions whose significance was overstated.  Now, at least within the United States, there is a growing consensus that the outposts have established Chinese military power within the South China Sea, giving the Chinese the advantage in any peacetime dispute or crisis.”  

“On April 17, in written testimony from Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated for Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Davidson wrote, 

“The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) will be able to use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants. In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

“Under the Trump administration, the US Navy has been conducting more frequent and more advanced naval exercises within the vicinity of Chinese outposts.  Under the Obama administration, pending the decision of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal, exercises were limited to “innocent passage,” meaning that the US Navy traversed the contested seas and did not stop, thus respecting any potential claim of the features to territorial seas.  In May 2017, the Guided Missile Destroyer USS Dewey sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef and stayed to conduct a “man overboard” exercise, normally authorized under “high seas freedoms.” The nature of the exercise shows that the US does not recognize that Mischief Reef has its own territorial sea.  The US Navy in January 2018 also conducted an operation within 12 miles of Scarborough Shoal, which is currently subject to a permanent Chinese Coast Guard presence and which many US analysts worry will soon be the site of Chinese construction.  

  • China

“On September, 2015, at the Rose Garden in front of the White House, President Xi Jingping stated: ‘Relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the island of South — Nansha Islands (trans. Spratly Islands) do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.’

“In April 2018 the tone of Chinese statements changed, with a statement published on the Ministry of Defense’s website stating: ‘The Nansha Islands are China’s territory… It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands.’

“China has been protesting the various US naval exercises in the Spratlys and near Scarborough Shoal, discussed above.  China describes these exercises as severe violations of sovereignty and militarization by the United States. 

  • Vietnam

“Vietnam has been the Southeast Asian nation most vocally opposed to the Chinese deployments.  Vietnam has formally asked China to withdraw military equipment from the South China Sea, posting a statement on foreign ministry’s website: ‘Vietnam is extremely concerned about the information (as reported) and reaffirms that all militarization activities, including the installation of missiles on the Spratly islands, is a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty”

  • Philippines

“Officially, the government of the Philippines has taken a cautious stance towards the recent developments.  In response to the recent Chinese naval exercise off the coast of Hainan, on March 30, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque stated that the exercise was ‘No cause (for) alarm as show of forces is not directed at us.’  Statements pertaining to the reported missile deployments have been more guarded in tone.  On May 7, in an official news release, Roque ‘stressed that they are confident China, assuming they have missiles, will not use these on the Philippines by citing the country’s good relations with the giant neighbor in the North,’ adding ‘We still do not have verification. I had a talk with the National Security Adviser and he told me that there is a technology that we need that we still don’t have to be able to verify it for ourselves.’”

“Various members of the Senate and the opposition have been more critical.  On May 7, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV on Monday filed a resolution urging a Senate panel on national defense and security to conduct a legislative hearing on the matter.”