Mr. Saurav Sarkar, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies
Just a day before the commencement of the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue (SLD) (1-3 June), the United States military’s Pacific Command changed its name to the Indo-Pacific Command. This name change came after the US had disinvited China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise as a consequence of its continued militarization of the South China Sea (SCS). The US-China relations have hit a new low in recent months as China perceives American activities in the SCS to be aimed at countering its growing presence in what it considers to be its sovereign waters.
Lieutenant General He Lei, head of China’s military delegation to the 2018 SLD, reportedly drew a parallel between China’s militarization of the SCS to the deployment of troops to Hong Kong in 1997 to project its sovereignty. The US, however, expects China to adhere to international law in the SCS before engaging with it in any military exercise hence the reason for disinviting China from RIMPAC. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has defiantly insisted that the US would continue its freedom of navigation operations to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China, however, does not view cessation of its military activities in disputed areas of the SCS (which it perceives to be completely legal) as a pre-requisite for participating in war games like RIMPAC. Hence, it has developed significant military capabilities in the SCS in an attempt to enhance its power projection capabilities in the region and beyond.
Implications of militarization in SCS islands
In the backdrop of this strained period in China-US relations, the military activities of both countries in the SCS are significant. Woody Island occupied by China in the disputed Paracels is now capable of conducting takeoff and landing of the H6-K strategic bomber which can even carry nuclear weapons. However, its nuclear capability is secondary to its primary role of conducting aerial attacks on approaching enemy ships using air-to-ground cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles. Woody Island is in close proximity to the Yulin naval base in Hainan province which is home to the People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet. About 1028 km south from Yulin is Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. This makes the defences at Fiery Cross Reef important as it sits in the middle of the southern access zone to the SCS and will, therefore, be vital to disrupting enemy movements into the SCS. In addition to Fiery Cross, there are air and naval defence platforms on Mischief and Subi Reefs as well. This arc of military installations from the Paracels to the Spratlys is designed to protect the Yulin submarine base using anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons as Yulin is critical for the PLAN’s ability to break through US defences around the First Island Chain. This is because the SCS has favourable conditions for submarines and makes it easier to disguise their movements.
Woody Island is also capable of landing J-11 and FC-1 fighter jets which could be used to gain air superiority and in conducting aerial bombings in the SCS. The same warplanes and even strategic bombers like the H6-K can also be stationed at Fiery Cross Reef which has a 3 km long airstrip and multiple hangers as observed via satellite images. This would allow the PLA to use the island as a force multiplier and an offshore power projection platform, something it had earlier lacked in the SCS. On 5 June the US Air Force conducted a flyby of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal from Guam using B-52 bombers as part of a routine ‘Continuous Bomber Presence’ mission in a deliberate attempt to project American power. The flyby not only raised tensions but also elicited a response from China who accused the US of sabre-rattling. This is understandable due to the fact that B-52s are nuclear capable and form part of the US strategic bomber fleet at Guam.
A day after the B-52 fly-by, according to ImageSat International, HQ-9B surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries had been removed from Woody Island which reappeared in the same positions on 8 June. This shows that the PLA is capable of quickly moving and deploying sophisticated military hardware on its offshore facilities. HQ-9Bs have been deployed in the Spratlys as well along with YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles. HQ-9Bs are medium to long range SAMs and would be effective in engaging with the US Navy’s fighter jets like F/A-18s but their effectiveness in dealing with stealth aircraft like F-22s and F-35s and cruise missiles remain doubtful. The YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, however, would be dangerous to US aircraft carriers especially if launched in large numbers to overwhelm their short-range defences.
In the current scenario, the PLA could conduct operations in the SCS unilaterally and get an upper hand against all regional actors but not without escalating the stakes involved and risking a direct confrontation with the US. A direct contest with the US, however, would be an uphill task for the PLA due to the experience and superior capability of the US Navy in amphibious warfare and support from its allies. This is one reason why China has still not engaged in a direct show of strength as it knows it still has a long way to go to counter the US fully. For the moment China seems to be abiding by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘bide our time, hide our capabilities’ dictum in its strategic designs. How it all plays out in the long term remains to be seen as neither country seems willing to compromise on their respective stances regarding the dispute.