Amid the focus on the US-China trade dispute, a possible meeting of the two nations’ leaders at next week’s G20 summit in Japan, and the massive protests in Hong Kong against an extradition bill, Beijing’s continuing militarization of the South China Sea has not been attracting as much notice as it should.
While the local media have debated whether the passage of Western naval ships through the Taiwan Strait are signs of support for Taipei or just freedom of navigation exercises, there has been less coverage of China’s actions in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) — which are also claimed by the Republic of China (ROC) and Vietnam — and elsewhere.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on May 29 called for “collective action” to hold Beijing responsible and enforce international laws in the South China Sea.
Dunford’s speech came just a few weeks after Reuters reported on increased activity by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine fleet around a base near Sanya on Hainan Island, as well as warships and aircraft maneuvers to protect the subs.
Analysts have long said that much of Beijing’s military buildup in the South China Sea has been aimed at providing protection for longer patrols by the sub fleet, which would give China a “second strike” capability. This is the major reason the US and its allies have been expanding their deployments and sub-hunting patrols in East Asia.
CNN yesterday reported that a satellite image taken on Wednesday showed at least four PLA Air Force J-10 jets parked on a runway on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島), the largest of the islands that China occupies in the Paracels. It is the first known deployment of fighters on Woody in two years, and comes just more than a year after the air force’s long-range H-67 bombers landed there during test flights.
An Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative report in 2017 said that the upgrading of dual-use facilities on Woody and other islands in the Paracels, as well as the deployment of surface-to-air missiles, had been a blueprint for China’s island-building efforts in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).
CNN cited Griffith Asia Institute fellow Peter Layton as saying that the presence of the J-10s could be “part of getting the J-10 squadron operationally ready for an ADIZ [air defense identification zone] declaration” and might be “the new normal.”
In addition, the ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese boat on June 9 near the Reed Bank (Lile Bank, 禮樂灘) highlighted Beijing’s continuing use of its coast guard and maritime militia to enforce its claims to the South China Sea.
While Manila says that it is still investigating the incident, which China called a “normal” collision between fishing boats, a claim Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seems too ready to accept, experts have noted that Chinese maritime militia vessels have reinforced steel hulls designed for such attacks and that Beijing used them when it seized control of the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) from Manila in 2012.
The June 9 incident highlights the need for other nations not to allow Beijing to continue to hide behind its “non-naval actions” by its coast guard and maritime militia, but to treat both as part of the PLA Navy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) 2015 promise not to militarize the South China Sea was proven worthless by December 2016, when the Chinese Ministry of Defense said it was “legitimate for China to deploy necessary defense facilities in the Nansha Islands.” To quote Dunford: “When we ignore actions that are not in compliance with international rules, norms and standards, we have just set a new standard.”
Taiwan should be working with neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam, despite their claims to South China Sea islands that the ROC also claims, as well as other nations, to ensure that Beijing’s militarization of the area is never seen as the new normal.
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