The UN arbitration court will soon rule on the case, brought by the Philippines against China, over who owns the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea (SCS). It is all but certain that China will reject the ruling, no matter what it says, because Beijing has already decided that the SCS is a Chinese lake, subject to its “indisputable sovereignty.” However, the issue of Chinese hegemony in the SCS is less and less about economics – oil and gas reserves, or fishing rights – and increasingly about the militarization of this body of water. The South China Sea is becoming, quite simply, a key defensive zone for China.

‘Little blue men’

It’s become increasingly clear that China intends to make the SCS a China-only military operating area. This can be seen in a number of recent actions by the Chinese. The first of these is the ratcheting up of activities by China’s “militarized fisherman,” the so-called “little blue men” who go out in the SCS and clash with ships from other nations, both commercial and naval. These are not simply private fishermen engaged in “patriotic activities.” On the contrary, according to researchers at the US Naval War College (NWC) with whom I recently spoke, these vessels are in actuality a maritime militia subsidized by Beijing and effectively a part-time military organization.

These boats are sent out to collect intelligence, show the flag, and promote sovereignty claims. Moreover, they are not above creating minor clashes with other ships, as they provide Chinese naval and paramilitary forces, particularly the Chinese Coast Guard with a pretext (protecting Chinese “civilians”) to intervene and thereby bolster China’s military presence in the SCS. While this maritime militia has been around for decades, researchers at the NWC point that they have become a much more active and aggressive force, and one that has a growing strategic purpose in what has been dubbed the “3Ds” of China’s SCS strategy: declare (Chinese claims), deny (other countries’ claims), and defend (those claims).

Chinese fishing boats
Chinese fishing boats

Full-scale militarization of SCS

At the same time, China’s aggressive (and wholly illegal, according to the UN Law of the Sea Treaty) artificial island-building program that has taken place in the Spratlys over the last few years is apparently entering a second phase: the full-scale militarization of Chinese possessions in the SCS. This includes building runways on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs, emplacing radar stations, and even temporarily moving weapons (such as artillery pieces) to these islands.

Chinese HQ-9 type surface-to-air missiles deployed to Woody Island
Chinese HQ-9 type surface-to-air missiles deployed to Woody Island

More important, Woody Island, one of China’s largest possessions in the SCS, has experienced a dramatic military expansion in recent years. Its 2700-meter runway can accommodate most Chinese fighter jets (in fact, Chinese Air Force J-11B fighters were recently spotted on the island), it has improved its harbor, and in early 2016 it was reported that long-range surface-to-air missiles were deployed to the island.

The third factor to add to this mix is China’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers. At the moment, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has just one carrier, the ex-Russian Varyag, refurbished and rechristened the Liaoning. While the Liaoning is basically a training ship and has not yet been used for actual military operations, it is an important precursor of things to come. China is already at work on a second, indigenous carrier, believed to be essentially a reverse-engineered version of the Liaoning. This, of course, has its own limitations. The Liaoning uses a ski-jump for takeoff, instead of a steam catapult like American aircraft carriers; this greatly reduces the number of aircraft that can be deployed on a carrier, and also severely limits the usefulness of the aircraft itself: the plane has to hold so much fuel that it is almost literally a flying gas tank, unable to carry more than a handful of armaments.

Carrier battle groups coming

It is likely, however, that subsequent Chinese aircraft carriers will be larger and will incorporate catapults, or perhaps even an electromagnetic launch system, such as the newest US carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, uses. In any event, most analysts believe that China ultimately wants a fleet of at least three, and perhaps up to six carriers, depending on whether it wishes to engage in sustained or surge operations.

If China acquires not just one but a fleet of aircraft carriers, it would greatly alter the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. It would mean the reorientation of the PLAN around carrier battle groups (CVBGs), with the carrier at the heart of a constellation of supporting submarines, destroyers, and frigates – an amalgamation of power projection at its foremost. Such CVBGs are among the most impressive instruments of military power, in terms of sustained, far-reaching, and expeditionary offensive force. In addition, it is likely that at least some of these new Chinese carriers will be based in Hainan Island, adjacent to the South China Sea.

J-15 fighter planes sit on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during training exercises in the Bohai Sea on December 24, 2015.
J-15 fighter planes sit on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during training exercises in the Bohai Sea on December 24, 2015.

Beijing’s chokepoint

And this amalgamation of force, combined with the rise of the “little blue men” and the growing militarization of the SCS gives a new strategic foreboding to this body of water. In particular, researchers at the US Naval War College see the South China Sea as being increasingly dominated by China not just according to sea power, but to land power as well. As they put it, the more or less permanent deployment of land-based Chinese military power at both extreme ends of the SCS – Hainan and Woody Island in the west, and the new artificial islands in the east – means that China is basically trying to turn the South China Sea into a strait. In other words, Beijing seeks to transform the South China Sea from an international sea lane into a Chinese-controlled waterway and a strategic chokepoint for other countries.

This “continental militarization” of the SCS not only diminishes the “open order” of the Southeast Asian maritime sphere. It also greatly raises the likelihood that the South China Sea will become a flashpoint for escalating conflict. China is not only militarizing the SCS, it is making it too important for Beijing to lose. This, in turn, raises the premium of a first strike by China on its regional rivals, in order to shore up its claims. More and more, China is playing a risky game of chicken, and at the same time, it does not seem to appreciate the grave potential consequences of its actions.

Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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