Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands
In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping oversaw the PLA Navy’s largest-ever display of warships, submarines, and aircraft in a massive naval review in the South China Sea. Last month, U.S. intelligence sources revealed that around the same time as that show of overt might, China quietly deployed advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles to bases on three disputed features in the Spratly Islands. In contrast to China’s earlier incremental moves in the South China Sea, this deployment motivated the United States and an expanding coalition of partners to impose new consequences on China and commit to a greater military presence in the region.
China’s South China Sea strategy has mixed its island construction as a fait accompli with a gradual ratcheting up of its military presence and activities, carefully calibrating its efforts to ensure they did not provoke international responses that could spiral into crisis or conflict. The new head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently testified that as a result, China can now control the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.
The United States has long been concerned by the potential for China’s Spratlys bases to project offensive military force, but because China had not yet deployed weapons systems to them that posed a significant offensive threat, the U.S. response has been restrained. That is what made this missile deployment different, and why the United States and others have reacted so strongly to it.
In 2013, China began large-scale land reclamation and construction on seven geographic features it occupied in the Spratly island chain, transforming uninhabitable reefs into sprawling man-made islands with significant infrastructure. Early on, the Chinese government improbably maintained that the facilities’ purpose was principally for safety of navigation and disaster relief logistics, emphasizing the lighthouses it had built instead of the bunkers and surveillance installations.
Part of what enabled China to spend the last several years building up its bases in the Spratly Islands comparatively unmolested, was Xi Jinping’s statement at a White House summit in 2015 that China was committed to upholding freedom of navigation and did not “intend to pursue militarization.” Many analysts subsequently characterized Xi’s statement as a pledge or promise not to militarize the Spratlys, even though in retrospect it was far more diplomatically ambiguous.
The contingent nature of the word “intend” meant China could make its militarization dependent on future circumstances that it alone got to define, and Chinese officials have since justified their buildups by pointing to U.S. military exercises and patrols as examples of threats or bad faith that China was responding to. Furthermore, since Xi did not explicitly say what China considered to be militarization and no consensus definition was agreed to afterwards, the United States’ subsequent opprobrium was diluted by semantic debate over what militarization actually was, even as China built runways, hardened bunkers, and ports, and placed long-range sensors and defensive weapon systems with obvious military utility.
But it is more meaningful to assess capabilities and threats than try to define what “militarization” is or isn’t. If runways and bunkers on the Spratlys seem to intuitively constitute “militarization,” they also don’t pose a threat on their own until they are filled with missiles and warplanes, and to date they have remained largely empty. Even when China installed point-defense weapons on the islands in 2016, official responses were largely muted because the systems’ short ranges did not pose a threat to warships steaming a few miles offshore or aircraft high overhead.
The new missiles China has reportedly deployed, including YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B anti-air missiles, do.
Some variants of the YJ-12B are thought to be able to strike surface ships at ranges up to 250 nautical miles, and the HQ-9B can target aircraft 100 nautical miles away. Deployed on the three largest Spratly islands China occupies, these missiles could target nearly any ship and most aircraft in the southern half of the South China Sea.
This radically changes the strategic environment in the South China Sea. These missiles mean that China’s bases in the Spratlys are no longer theoretical military threats but real ones. This, combined with reports that China has also installed military jamming equipment on the islands (which it may have already used against passing U.S. aircraft), led to a swift response from the United States and many of its partners.
The White House Press Secretary said that the United States had raised its concerns with the Chinese government and that China would face both near and long-term consequences for its militarization efforts in the South China Sea. Shortly afterwards, the United States rescinded China’s invitation to participate in this summer’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, and then invited Vietnam — which has its own rival claims to islands China occupies in the South China Sea — to participate for the first time. The U.S. Department of Defense spokesman said this was just an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the Spratlys and the violation of Xi Jinping’s 2015 assurances.
China participated in the previous two RIMPAC exercises, and the United States had hoped closer engagement would reduce tensions and perhaps induce it to be less assertive in places like the South and East China Seas. It was also an opportunity to show off new coalition military capabilities. The rescinded invitation is a loss of prestige for the PLA Navy.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry also quickly condemned the deployment and explicitly requested China to “stop militarization and withdraw military equipment” from the islands, which it also claims as its own. More broadly, Vietnam appears to be mirroring China’s regional strategy back at it, by creating its own paramilitary fishing militia similar to China’s maritime militia fleet, and expanding the facilities on the Spratly features it occupies, though both efforts are modest compared to the scale of China’s.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the missile reports with many of the same talking points it has used for years, adding what was perhaps a veiled economic threat. According to their spokesman, “Our peaceful construction activities on the Nansha Islands, including the deployment of necessary national defense facilities, are meant to safeguard China's sovereignty and security, which is also the rights a sovereign state is entitled to. The relevant deployment targets no one. Anyone with no invasive intention will find no reason to worry about this…I must stress that China is a big country in terms of trade, and also a staunch champion of regional peace and stability.”
The ministry later tried to use the ambiguity of the term “militarization” to pivot attention to the United States’ military presence in the region: “It bears not the slightest resemblance to "militarization", a label someone is trying to pin on us... It is worth mentioning that the U.S. has been upping its military deployment and flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. That is exactly "militarization". They need to think about the consequences.”
Chinese officials seemed not to appreciate that their standard rhetorical arguments about the definition of militarization were inadequate to address the ways this missile deployment was materially different from China’s earlier build-ups, and may be a turning point in how other countries approach the South China Sea and broader competition with China.
Just weeks later, at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized China’s tactics in the South China Sea and iterated the United States’ plan to help regional countries build up their navies and maritime law enforcement capabilities and ensure that those nations’ militaries can operate in concert with U.S. forces. He dismissed China’s peaceful and defensive claims about its Spratly bases and said they were directly tied to “military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.” Later, he said that rescinding China’s RIMPAC invitation was a relatively minor consequence, and that China’s behavior would inevitably bring more serious ones as its actions alienated nations across the Indo-Pacific.
The French and British defense ministers also made commitments at the Dialogue to engage more vigorously in the region, including by contesting waters that China makes territorial claims over. The United States routinely challenges excessive maritime claims through its Freedom of Navigation program, but until now, other nations had resisted conducting their own. In recent weeks, a French squadron accompanied by a British helicopter force has been patrolling the South China Sea and has been repeatedly challenged by the PLA Navy. Earlier this year, a British warship patrolled the region for the first time in several years and another three-ship squadron will deploy to the region later this year.
The United States and its partners have struggled to respond effectively to what they view as China’s prevarication about their intentions in the South China Sea. Now, with the deployment of weapons with unambiguous offensive capability to the Spratlys, China has provided something concrete to balance against. There is no longer any reason for them to acknowledge the diplomatic fig leaf of Xi Jinping’s “militarization” assurance.