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Rupakjyoti Borah
China’s Bid to Rule the Waves in the South China Sea
05 Apr 2016

 

China’s deployment of HQ-9 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) to Woody Island in the disputed Paracel island chain in the South China Sea is a new, but not a surprising, development. Slowly, but surely, Beijing has been proceeding with the militarization of Woody Island, referred to as Yongxingdao in China and which has been under its control since 1956. This island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. In January this year, Beijing landed civilian aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, which is a part of the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. It has since come to light that China may be building a radar system on the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Island chain.

 

So, what message does Beijing intend to convey?

 

First, it means that China wants to send a message that it is determined to proceed with the militarization of the islands under its control in the South China Sea. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a visit to the US last year, said that China would not “militarize” the artificial islands it had constructed in the South China Sea, things appear to be quite different on the ground.

 

Second, it shows that Beijing wants to strengthen its position in the event any legal hurdles crop up later with regard to its claims in the South China Sea. It is worth mentioning here that the Philippines has taken China to the arbitral tribunal at The Hague, because the two countries have been locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Beijing’s recent moves could be a precursor to the setting up of a new Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

 

Third, it seems China wants to send a tough message to other claimants in the region that it is determined to seize the initiative when it comes to its maritime claims in the region. Apart from China, the other claimants to the islands and the territory in the South China Sea include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. China also has claims over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu, and its recent moves could also be a ruse to send a signal to Tokyo, which has already been grappling with the increasing assertiveness of Chinese actions in the region.

 

Fourth, China’s actions are also meant as a signal to the US, which recently sent a guided missile destroyer – the USS Curtis Wilbur – to within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels. Earlier, the US had flown B-52 bombers over some of the disputed islands in the region and conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in a clear signal that it does not accept China’s claims in the region.

 

What lies behind China’s growing assertiveness?

 

Domestic economic pressures could be one reason why Beijing is behaving more aggressively in the South China Sea region. In addition, ever since Xi took over as president, he has been trying to cement his authority in the Chinese political milieu. Beijing has also calculated that since President Barack Obama will be leaving office early next year, he would be loath to take decisive action in the South China Sea, and would rather leave his successor to deal with the issue. In addition, Washington has its hands full with the Syrian crisis and other issues in the restive Middle East – consuming the bulk of its energy, time and resources.

 

China has also been facing flak over its support for North Korea, which has undertaken a nuclear test and a “satellite” launch in recent months, and this deployment of missiles could be a diversionary tactic so that international pressure on Beijing to rein in North Korea dissipates for the moment.

 

Stormy seas ahead

 

Both Beijing and Washington are not willing to blink first as they continue to vie for influence in the South China Sea, one of the most critical waterways in the world, through which goods worth $5 trillion are estimated to pass every year. The so-called US “rebalance” to Asia has seen Washington increase its profile in the region. In a signal that the US continues to place a strong emphasis on the region, Obama recently hosted the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first such summit on US soil in Sunnylands, California. However, the Sunnylands Summit failed to come up with a specific reference to Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, even though there was a joint declaration. The inability of ASEAN member states to pass a strong message to Beijing has emboldened China to push its case in the region. All things considered, it appears that there are stormy seas ahead when it comes to the South China Sea.

 

Rupakjyoti Borah is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. He was earlier an Assistant Professor of International Relations at India’s Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are personal. Follow him on Twitter @rupakj

    About the Author

    Rupakjyoti Borah is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. He was earlier an Assistant Professor of International Relations at India’s Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

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