The Diplomat, 221 June 2015. Who Is the biggest aggressor in the South China Sea? (A rejoinder), by Carl Thayer.
An edited extract of the original article is reproduced below as well as two other papers by Thayer in pdf format.
China’s track record in the South China Sea is markedly different from those of the other claimants.
Greg Austin recently wrote in The Diplomat that Vietnam occupied 24 features in the South China Sea in 1996 and has “increased [this number] from 30 to 48 in the last six years” as if these figures were facts. I doubt there is any plausibility to his claim. It would be more accurate to point out that Vietnam occupied most of these features in the 1970s after reunification. Whether Vietnam has doubled the number of its features since then is highly unlikely.
In a paper just presented to the 66th Current Strategy Forum at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, I wrote, “U.S. officials also claimed that Vietnam occupied forty-eight features in the South China Sea. When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited Hanoi this June he called on Vietnam to permanently halt all land reclamation activities on these features. His Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of National Defense General Phung Quang Thanh, argued that “land reclamation” was being undertaken to prevent soil erosion. General Thanh also argued that Vietnam stationed military personnel on nine “floating islands” and twelve “submerged islands” or a total of 21 features.”…
Vietnam’s so-called “land reclamation” represents 1.9% of the total area of China’s newly constructed artificial islands. Vietnam does not have dredging machines like China, it brings in soil from the mainland.
The litmus test for construction activities in the Spratlys is whether or not they violate the letter and spirit of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC calls on all parties to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.” It is implausible to suggest that Vietnam is – to use Austin’s emotive language – “the aggressor” on the basis of evidence presently available or to conjure up a threat from the tiny specks of features that Vietnam occupies. China on the other hand placed self-propelled artillery on one of its features that is capable of shelling nearby Vietnamese-occupied features.
Has China shown “great restraint”?
In a paper presented in 2012, I wrote: China consolidated its military presence in the South China Sea by construction on several of the features it occupied. China seized Mischief Reef in 1995 and built its first structures in the South China Sea. These were expanded in October 1998 with the addition of three octagon-shaped wooden structures and two two-story concrete towers one at each end. The towers bristle with SATCOMM and HF antennae for communications. The towers are thought to house ELINT (electronic intelligence facilities) and radars. The facilities on Mischief Reef have since been upgraded with the construction of two new piers, a helicopter pad, a navy navigation radar, several anti-aircraft guns and an anti-ship cruise missile system (either the HY-2 or C-801).
A 200-foot long concrete building was constructed on Fiery Cross Reef. It houses a naval High Frequency (HF) yagi radar antenna (Bean Sticks), two Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) radomes, and several whip communication and mast antennas. The various antenna support different requirements, such as radio signal surveillance and Long Range (LR) communications. The facilities on Fiery Cross Reef also include satellite communication (SATCOMM) and meteorological dishes.
Chinese facilities on Johnson South Reef include four octagon-shaped huts and a rectangular two story building on a concrete base supporting two towers. One SATCOMM and three masthead antennas are mounted on the roof. Chigua Reef contains an identical building structure plus a wooden barracks. Subi Reef hosts a wooden barracks, a two story building with a SATCOMM antenna and a helicopter landing pad…
The basis for China’s claim to sovereignty rests on a cartographic sleight of hand. China renamed James Shoal to sandbank when it modified the Nationalist government’s 1947 map of the South China Sea. China also has employed electronic jamming to interfere with the lawful operations of an Indonesian maritime law enforcement vessel that had apprehended Chinese fishermen caught poaching in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
China’s past track record in invading and seizing the Crescent group in the Parcels island in January 1974 from the Republic of Vietnam, and its March 1988 armed seizure of Johnson South and other nearby reefs from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam stand in contrast to the behavior of all other claimants.
China has now constructed a 3,110-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef that is capable of handling all types of military aircraft in China’s inventory. In the future China will be able to station up to thirty combat aircraft and a squadron of combat ships at Fiery Cross Reef.
The South China Sea will get more contested in the military domain as China develops its naval base on Hainan island and completes construction of forward operating bases on artificially constructed “islands” in the South China Sea. What more needs to be said?
Related papers by Carl Thayer
The papers below have been written by Carl Thayer. With Professor Thayer’s kind permission, thay are attached in pdf format are in pdf format.
- Thayer: Who is the biggest aggressor in the South China Sea? (A rejoinder), The Diplomat, 21 June, 2015.
- Thayer: Beijing’s Legal Alchemy. China is not reclaiming land, it is building artificial islands as forward staging bases for its military, . The Atlantic Times, Germany, June 2015.
- Thayer Presentation Strategy and Maritime Power in a contested environment: National Military Maritime Strategy in the South China Sea, 66th Current Strategy Forum 2015, US Naval College, Newport, Rhode Island, USA, 16-17 June 2015.
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