China toned down vitriolic rhetoric in response to the recent passage of a US warship near a disputed island in the South China Sea.

USS Curtis Wilbur
Guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur

Chinese government-controlled media outlets, however, seized on the transit of the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur on Jan. 30 within 12 miles of Triton Island in the Paracels archipelago with stepped up threats to deploy missiles and warplanes on some of its 3,200 acres of newly-created islands.

Analysis of official Chinese statements after the unannounced warship transit shows Beijing backed off from more threatening rhetoric used after an earlier warship passage in October.

Official PRC spokesmen pointedly failed to use the same level of pitched criticism that followed the destroyer USS Lassen’s 12-nautical mile sail near Subi Reef in the Spratlys during the second incident.

China denounced the Subi Reef passage, where China is building an airstrip for potential military use, by asserting Beijing’s “resolute opposition,” “solemn representations,” and “solemn warning” to the United States.

Those terms were absent in response to what the Pentagon called a routine freedom of navigation operation designed to challenge the island maritime claims of China, Vietnam and Taiwan – all of whom assert sovereignty over the Parcels, known by China as the Xisha chain.

Official denunciations instead came mainly from the Defense Ministry that described the action as a “deliberate provocation” with “extremely dangerous consequences.” The Foreign Ministry said the warship operation was “detrimental to peace and stability.”

Analysts say the relatively subdued Chinese response this time indicates Beijing wants to avoid a confrontation with the United States.

Accelerated militarization

But the restraint may come with a cost: China is now showing signs that the two warship visits are likely to speed up plans to militarize the South China Sea islands.

The People’s Liberation Army signaled its military buildup plans for the South China Sea in two communist party-affiliated news outlets on Jan. 26 and Feb. 2.

PLA Sr. Col. Liang Fang of the National Defense University wrote in the Global Times that the Wilbur’s passage appeared aimed at gaining Vietnamese backing for US policies challenging China South China Sea control. Liang blamed the stepped up activity on US Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, who has taken a tougher line on Chinese encroachment than his predecessor.

Liang urged the PLA to step up “military deployments” to both the Spratlys and Parcels “as soon as possible,” by dredging deep-water ports, and building airstrips.

Additionally, China should now declare an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, over the sea, he stated. China unilaterally announced an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013 as part of its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

US defense officials said if China declares an ADIZ over the South China Sea it would further increase tensions in the area. The United States and other states in the region assert emphatically that the South China Sea is an international waterway not subject to any country’s controls. China claims 90% of the sea as its maritime domain.

Ramming, firing warning shots?

Liang said the US warships visits were “hegemonic provocation” and urged the PLA to use naval and air forces to force US ships out of the region, by “ramming them, and firing warning shots” if necessary. “Moreover, we should be fully prepared for crises to escalate,” he wrote.

A separate PLA article revealed plans to deploy combat aircraft on rotational shifts, along with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and air defense missiles that would threaten both surface ships and aircraft in the sea.

The article quotes PLA naval chief Wu Shengli telling the American chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, during a recent teleconference that China would defend the islands. “The quantity of defense facilities will be completely decided by the degree of threats we are subjected to,” Wu was quoted as telling the Navy chief, according to the Jan. 26 article on the Global Times website.

Specific Chinese military items being considered, in addition to anti-ship and air defense missiles, included enhanced military communications and reconnaissance equipment, and strengthened military logistics.

For the U.S. Navy, the most lethal arms that could be deployed are the YJ-8 and YJ-62 anti-ship missiles. The YJ-8 has a range of 65 nautical miles and the YJ-62 can hit targets up to 120 nautical miles.

Air defenses likely will include HQ-7, HQ-9, HQ-12, or HQ-16 missiles, and 35 millimeter towed or self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. Russian-made S-300s also could be deployed on some of the larger islands.

As for warships, the relatively small islands of the Spratlys and Paracels will be unable to accommodate large warships, so small and medium-sized PLA navy ships will be called on to conduct regular patrols.

“In the future we can also dispatch aircraft to carry out regular patrols,” the report said, adding that “in peace time it is necessary to deploy a certain number of combat aircraft on islands and reefs where conditions permit.”

US freedom of navigation operations within 12 miles of disputed islands were halted in the region around 2012 under then-US Pacific Command commander Adm. Samuel Locklear, who backed off the operations in seeking closer military ties to Beijing.

Harris, the current Pacific Command chief, has said China has no more claim to the South China Sea than the United States does to the Gulf of Mexico. Days before the USS Wilbur’s transit, the four-star admiral gave no indication of the upcoming maneuver. But in a speech in Washington he voiced his concerns about the militarization of the Chinese islands and called Beijing’s claims “provocative.”

Chinese control by 2020

Photos show the Chinese have “clearly militarized” Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, Harris said. By 2020, the Chinese could “control the South China Sea against all the militaries out there with the exception of the US military in all scenarios short of war.” Harris warned, noting the Chinese control threatens large amounts of trade through the waterway.

The commander made no mention of the Triton island passage by the Wilbur. But he stated emphatically that the US Navy would not be deterred by China from such actions and said future actions would evolve into more detailed territorial challenges.

“As we continue down the path of freedom of navigation operations, you will see more of them — and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope and in areas of challenge,” Harris said.

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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