The China-occupied Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Image: People's Daily

While international attention is transfixed on the war in Ukraine, China has fully militarized three of its occupied islands in the contested South China Sea.

Speaking aboard a P-8 Poseidon on patrol in the South China Sea, US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino said on March 20 that “China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby.”

According to Aquilino, China’s facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef appear to have been completed. He said it is yet to be seen whether China will start construction of additional military facilities in its other occupied features in the maritime area.

Admiral Aquilino added that “the function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores” and that from these occupied features, China “can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

Aquilino also stressed that commercial and military planes flying near these occupied islands will be within the range of China’s weapons, which he said threatens all countries that operate near those features.

During the P-8 Poseidon’s patrol, it was reportedly repeatedly challenged with Chinese radio communications, giving a stern warning that “China has sovereign over the Spratly Islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment.”

The P-8 Poseidon’s crew responded, “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

While China maintains that its military expansion in these disputed waters is primarily defensive and aimed at protecting its sovereignty, the recent militarization stands in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that it would not transform its occupied features into military bases.

China’s objectives in the South China Sea can be summed up in three main points. First, China wants to transform the South China Sea into a sanctuary for its nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which need to operate in the Western Pacific to ensure nuclear deterrence against the US.

Second, China intends to transform the South China Sea into a buffer zone between itself and the US in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Third, China aims to control the South China Sea’s underwater resources, namely oil, gas, and fisheries, as well as secure its own maritime trading routes.

Traditionally, China considered Taiwan to be the most immediate threat to its core interests as its mere existence presents an alternate China not under Communist rule. China considers Taiwan a rogue province that should eventually be reunited with the mainland.

Taiwan’s high standard of living also poses difficult questions about the economic and governance policies of China’s Communist Party rulers, with as many as 600 million Chinese still deemed as poor despite massive economic growth in recent decades.

China started militarizing its holdings in the maritime area two decades back, much to the chagrin of the US and its Pacific allies, alongside Southeast Asian states involved in these maritime disputes. While the US and its allies routinely conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, the responses of Southeast Asian states have been somewhat varied.

The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea in 2020. Photo: AFP / Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy

Brunei and Malaysia have taken a softer, quiet diplomacy approach to China’s wide-reaching territorial claims, preferring to maintain a low profile on their conflicts with Beijing. Vietnam has been consistently balancing against China’s superior naval might by modernizing its navy and establishing its own maritime militia.

While Indonesia is not a direct claimant in the South China Sea, Chinese encroachment in its Natuna Islands which are located on the southernmost extent of its nine-dash line has prompted Indonesia to take a hard-line stance on illegal fishing in the area by Chinese trawlers and to modernize its own military and power projection capabilities.

The Philippines heavily relies on its 1951 mutual defense treaty with the US and international law to assert its own territorial claims and challenge China’s. In 2016, Manila lodged a case against China that was handled by the UN-backed Arbitral Tribunal and decided in the Philippines’ favor. Beijing has ignored the ruling, however, which lacked an enforcement mechanism.