February 16, 2017

Feng Zhu

According to media coverage, China is speeding up the militarization of the South China Sea by deploying hundreds of missiles in the reclaimed maritime territories, and this supposedly poses a threat to U.S. security in the region. But few people would find such an idea convincing upon closer examination.

China’s military buildup in the reclaimed islands in the Spratlys is quite limited but necessary. All the weapon systems are short-range and defensive in nature. Considering the billions of dollars spent on island reclamation and construction, Beijing is legally justified in building military defenses to protect its huge investment.

Second, it is unlikely these weapons would be used to attack nearby American ships and jet fighters. The reason is that any retaliation would put these islands at risk of being fully destroyed. I don’t think that Beijing will risk a huge retaliation by using these island-based light weapons — rifle, guns and short-range missiles.

Third, China’s limited weapon systems, along with airstrips in those constructed islands, do not forcefully change the military postures of China and the United States in the western Pacific. China’s reclaimed islands, even with military facilities there, are more like “sitting ducks” than islands bases, as China’s land-based firepower is too far away to defend them. Even a couple of U.S. destroyers could easily paralyze these islands.

China’s activities in the Spratly Islands arise from political, not military, motivations. What’s more, it’s not China that initiated the reclamation and military buildup. Ironically, it’s Vietnam and the Philippines, and they have never terminated their projects in their illegally occupied Spratly assets.

Beijing never disavows its promise of peaceful settlement of any maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

China’s island construction and military buildup in the Spratlys might complicate U.S. security strategy in the South China Sea as China emerges as a new competitor in the western Pacific. But China’s navy and air force remain far behind those of the United States, and it’s unimaginable that China’s newly claimed islands, even with a number of short-range missiles, could put the United States in jeopardy.

Beijing should be prudently and transparently handling its military buildup in the Spratlys while seeking to ensure the United States does not overreact. No one in the region seeks an escalation of military tension between the two powers.

The commentary appeared first at CQ Researcher on January 20, 2017.