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The Strategic Value And Vulnerability Of China’s South China Sea Bases – Analysis

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Recent US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea have re-raised the questions of purpose and vulnerability of China’s bases there.    

One argument has it that the bases are not significant either strategically or tactically; and in any case can be easily neutralized in a conflict.  But others argue that the bases are a critical part of China’s strategy to dominate the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. They also argue that these bases serve as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (C4 ISR) nodes that would give China a distinct advantage in the early stages of a military conflict. The difference between these contending premises is a yawning chasm with implications for the whole region and beyond. For US policy makers it can determine the US political and potential military response to China’s bases there.

Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington’s Center for International and Strategic Studies. https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/the-conventional-wisdom-on-chinas-island-bases-is-dangerously-wrong/ says the “conventional wisdom throughout Washington still seems to be that [these military outposts] can be safely dismissed as lacking strategic value”.  In his opinion “That’s wrong.” 

He thinks that China’s intention in building and “militarizing” ‘features’ in the South China Sea is to intimidate other claimants to the point that they will lose confidence that the U.S. can or has the will to protect their interests and thus “undermine America’s role as a regional security provider.” 

This conclusion is in keeping with the warning of J. Stapleton Roy’s and others that “China wants to weaken US alliances, erode American centrality and create a new Sinocentric order in Asia.”  https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/03/15/whither-the-united-states-in-the-indo-pacific/ ; https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-06-14/did-america-get-china-wronghttps://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/rising-to-the-china-challenge  

According to Roy, this presents the U.S. with a stark strategic choice.  “Should the United States seek to preserve air and sea dominance in the Western Pacific or seek a sustainable military balance between China and the United States?” He thinks the first choice would lead to an arms race and probably to  a chill and distancing in political and economic relations.  Even with the other choice, according to this analysis, the U.S. would still need to maintain a military presence sufficient to deter China’s aggressive behavior and its credibility with its allies and friends.

Poling concludes that “US forces would have little choice but to concede the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to China in the opening stages of a conflict.” The implication is that it is indeed in the U.S. strategic – not tactical -security interest to contain, constrain or even remove China’s military assets on these outposts.  There is no mention of a compromise which I think the likely outcome.  

Poling and others also argue that China’s C4 ISR installations could neutralize US ISR in the South China Sea and thus enhance the survivability of China’s nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict. They may even be able to detect and thus neutralize US submarines.  

Poling  denies that China’s installations are vulnerable. He thinks the facilities on Mischief and Subi Reef are too big to be easily neutralized.   https://www.eurasiareview.com/20032020-chinas-artificial-islands-in-south-china-sea-extended-forward-presence-analysis/ This is quite a leap for someone with no direct access to confidential US military strategy and information.

Others who have had that access think otherwise. Indeed, some well-known US military strategists think these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range bunker-busting cruise missiles fired from destroyers and submarines –as well as missiles and glide bombs launched from aircraft and drones. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/real-problem-chinas-south-china-sea-bases-52907 

According to retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence and PACOM Commander “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us”. https://www.manilalivewire.com/2015/05/chinese-troops-in-spratlys-can-be-wiped-out-by-philippines-vietnam-says-retired-us-navy-admiral/;  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/retired-admiral-chinas-not-driving-the-us-out-of-the-western-pacifichttps://cftni.org/recent-events/chinas-military-posturing-in-the-east-and-south-china-seas-a-losing-strategy/

Other military strategists say that while China might present a problem for the US Navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland https://www.rand.org/paf/projects/us-china-scorecard.html, the U.S. still maintains a military advantage over China in the South China Sea. It currently operates throughout that Sea with military vessels and aircraft as well as manned ISR assets. Moreover it has deployed many and diverse drones –UAVs, USVs and UUVs– to the area. These analysts argue that it is the U.S. — not China — that currently dominates the South China Sea militarily.

The conclusion that the bases can neutralize US ISR in and over the South China Sea also neglects the current US advantage in satellite remote sensing and in drones there. https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/is-china-ahead-of-america-in-next-generation-unmanned-aircraft/  No other country can match the U.S.’s array of aerial, surface and subsurface maritime drones, particularly their range and advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and telecommunications support systems. 

About four years ago, then US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced from the deck of a US warship sailing in the South China Sea that the U.S. was deploying “new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water where manned submersibles cannot.”  https://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/18/us-to-sail-submarine-drones-in-south-china-sea.html .  The then Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert said simply that the undersea drones will enable the U.S. to retain “our edge” in that environment. Presumably this capability has progressed significantly. For example, US Poseidon-deployed sonobuoys now reinforce a seamless network of hydrophones, sensors and strategically positioned assets stretching offshore from northeastern China to Indonesia-the “US Navy Fish Hook Undersea Defense Line.” {HYPERLINK https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buss/see-plane-it-would-try-sink-chinas-submarines-war-81586“}  Its purpose is to control the underwater information domain.  The U.S. also flies hundreds of ISR missions every year along China’s coast and over the South China to dominate that information domain as well.  China’s recent advances in the field –while considerable–are not yet a threat to U.S. maritime domain awareness superiority in, over and under the South China Sea.  

The strategic value of these bases also withers in the face of reality. It may be that China is using the bases to threaten opposing claimants. But the US was never likely to go to war with China on behalf of Southeast Asian sovereignty claimants over disputed flyspecks – – or even  their claims to resources in disputed areas of the South China Sea.  This was always wishful thinking on the part of these claimants- – and US militarists. 

 Moreover, there is no indication that the U.S. military is standing down or withdrawing from Southeast Asia.  In fact it seems to be doing the opposite.  It has increased the frequency of its FONOPs challenging China’s claims there and continues to prominently ‘show the flag’ in the region. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-usa/u-s-says-completes-second-aircraft-carrier-visit-to-vietnam-idUSKBN20Y0F3https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/warship-sails-taiwan-strait-tensions-china-200326010625456.html 

Moreover, it is considering deploying intermediate range missiles to threaten China’s assets in and on the Sea https://thehill.com/policy/defense/456032-pentagon-chief-says-us-looking-to-put-intermediate-range-missiles-in-asia and the US Army intends to set up task forces in the region “with modernized weaponry, nestled alongside counterparts [to change] the calculus and create dilemmas for potential adversaries”. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3045646/us-army-aiming-counter-chinese-threat-indo-pacific-security  The US Marines are undertaking ” a radical, decade-long transformation of its force to fight the sort of war it envisions might happen against and adversary like China”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/us-marine-corps-unveils-transformation-plan-focused-on-china/

Despite cries that “the sky is falling,” and “to arms”–the situation appears to be settling into a leaky status quo. It is uncomfortable for some Southeast Asian claimants and ASEAN as a whole. But it is what it is and is unlikely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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