The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has released a new report, “China’s Big Three Near Completion,” revealing China’s latest construction on the features it occupies in the South China Sea.
In what has become a predictable pattern, some US and foreign media have used the information to bolster their campaigns to convince the Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to US interests there — including freedom of navigation. But the leaps of logic and the burgeoning drumbeat for the US to confront China should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism. The sky is not falling—not yet, anyway.
Judging by its homepage, AMTI prides itself on its reports being featured in such reputable media as the New York Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post. But it doesn’t list other more hawkish media like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Washington Times that use this information to support their calls for the US to “stand up” to China. Of course one cannot hold AMTI analysts responsible for how their information is used. But it doesn’t help that the AMTI analysts themselves push a biased interpretation both in word and by the blinkered focus of their research.
For example, AMTI’s latest report concludes that China “can now deploy military assets including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time.” This is a fact. But then its director, Greg Poling, said in an interview regarding the report’s release “…look for deployment in the near future,” and “This is ‘militarization.’” He also said, “If you’re a Southeast Asian fisherman or an oil and gas exploration vessel, you don’t operate [presumably within China’s nine-dashed line claim] unless the Chinese let you operate, because they now are watching everything you do, and as soon as they send planes out there they’ll be able to intervene anywhere, anytime.”
The AMTI report also concludes that the completion of the three air bases “will allow Chinese military to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea.” But Poling said in another interview that China “will be able to build out its power projection capabilities bit by bit until it establishes de facto control over the South China Sea. What China is really doing is establishing all the necessary infrastructure to allow it to deploy military forces quickly and decisively.” This is all true but subtly scaremongering. Media reports changed this language to “could be used to control” the South China Sea. That is a biased exaggeration.
AMTI is not alone in pushing the worst-case scenario. Australia’s Lowy Institute released a report last year, “Shifting Waters : China’s New Passive Assertiveness in Asian Maritime Security,” that took these concerns a bit further. Citing work by CSIS , the Center for a New American Security and testimony before the US Congress, the Lowy Report said “These strategic outposts will permit Beijing to enhance its power projection capabilities and establish anti-access zones right across the South China Sea. China will be able to extend the range and endurance of military and coast guard patrols; forward deploy air force, navy, and coast guard assets; and conduct aerial patrols over disputed waters, possibly in support of a future ADIZ (air defense identification zone).” The same report also said that a "combination of ground-based radar facilities, air defenses, anti-ship missiles and forward-based fighter jets would facilitate the development of “mini-denial zones” extending southward from China’s Hainan Island".
This frequent use of conditional language is misleading. In this context, could means might. But being able to do something — which is what the AMTI research assesses — and having the intention to do it are two rather different things. There are many things that could happen in the South China Sea, including continued provocative actions by the US Navy.
Articles based on AMTI reports often cite the supposed more than five trillion dollars worth of commercial trade that transits the South China Sea. The inference is that China may use these facilities to disrupt this trade. I suppose this is possible. But it has not done so, is unlikely to do so, and maintains it will not do so. China depends heavily on seaborne trade through this Sea, which would likely be interrupted in a conflict.
So if not commercial navigation, then what is it that China may threaten? The US has cleverly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to undertake various provocative military activities. The US argues that China’s interference with its military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s EEZ violates freedom of navigation. But China argues that it is not challenging US freedom of navigation itself but the US’s abuse of this right by its military in China’s EEZ. The activities of the US’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets include the active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, “preparation of the battlefield” using legal subterfuge to evade the scientific research consent regime, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base.
In China’s view, these are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by most states. Nor are they uses of the ocean for peaceful purposes as required by UNCLOS. Rather they are intrusive and controversial practices that China regards as threats of use of force which are prohibited by the UN Charter.
The AMTI claims that its goal “is not to promote a particular point of view, but to serve as a clearing house for divergent views”. That may be, but its research and “revelations” are one-sided and focused on “outing” China. A more balanced analysis would pay equivalent attention to other claimants’ activities and in particular those of the US Navy and its “militarization” of the South China Sea. It is the job of the US military to be proactive and to prepare for the worst from potential enemies. But that is not the role of objective scholars.
Both China and the US are “militarizing” the South China Sea — at least in each other’s eyes. Other claimants have also done so.
The AMTI’s analytical slant is not “conscious” and straightforward. Rather it is subtly revealed in several ways. In its seemingly obsessive focus on China, AMTI largely neglects the “sins” of other claimants like Malaysia, Philippine, Vietnam, and Taiwan. For example, the latter has just undertaken military exercises around its main occupied feature Taiping Dao. What did it do and what military assets can it bring to bear in a conflict?
Much more important in this context are the military activities of the US in the South China Sea. They receive scant mention by the AMTI. While China might present a problem for the US Navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the US still maintains the military advantage over China in the South China Sea. It currently operates throughout that Sea with combat military vessels and aircraft as well as manned ISR assets. Moreover it is in the process of deploying AUVs, USVs and UUVs to the area. It is the US — not China — that currently dominates South China Sea. A balanced analysis would pay more attention to the military capabilities and activities of the US and others there.
AMTI also neglects to evaluate the vulnerability of China’s installations to the US capability to destroy them at will. In any conflict scenario — and interference with commercial freedom of navigation would certainly be one — 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 UAVs. According to retired Admiral and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, “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.” Relevant to this assessment, Vietnam has deployed advanced mobile rocket launchers to some of the features it occupies, thus threatening China’s installations.
China has no business — legally or politically — claiming, constructing on, and occupying Mischief Reef, which a Hague arbitration panel has declared to be a low tide elevation not within 12 nm of any other high tide elevation. But the same applies to Vietnam’s installations on low tide elevations. China’s claims to other features it occupies are as legitimate as those of other claimants. Moreover China has the right to defend its facilities on the features it legitimately claims. China has indeed been enhancing its defenses on the features it occupies there. So have Taiwan and Vietnam; the Philippines has done so in the past.
China apparently does not consider defensive installations “militarization”. Moreover, China has repeatedly warned that if the US persists with provocative ISR probes and FONOPs near its coast and occupied features, it would defend itself. In a January 2016 teleconference with US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said that “we won’t not set up defenses. How many defenses completely depend on the level of threat we face.” Self-defense is every nation’s right. Indeed, Vietnam, in reference to the Spratlys, claims that “it is within our legitimate right to self-defense, to move our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory.” Moreover, the US itself frequently claims that it is defending its national security interests by its forward military deployments, its ISR probes, its FONOPs, and its beefed-up naval presence in the South China Sea.
There is obviously a disagreement as to the definition of “militarization” and who is doing it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “militarization” as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use.” Under this definition, all the claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features — China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam — “militarized” them years ago. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbors that have accommodated military aircraft and vessels.
So what specifically do the AMTI and Poling mean by “militarization” when they accuse China of it? Is “occasional” military use all right? But what is “occasional” military use? What if that “military” use is for “humanitarian” purposes such as search and rescue or disaster response? Does the “intent” of the use matter — and who decides? How about if it is “for defensive purposes only”? Are US enhanced military activities — like ISR activities and FONOPS in the South China Sea — “militarization”?
More germane, why has AMTI not probed and “revealed” the bigger picture regarding “militarization”? The US — unlike China — already has military “places” in Southeast Asia — in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand — and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore for its Poseiden subhunters and electronic warfare platforms. With the pivot, the US has clearly increased its military presence in the region.
Further, in China’s view, the US has militarized the situation by provocatively “projecting power.” Indeed, as a senior US naval officer put it, the FONOPs are “an in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss” — in other words “gunboat diplomacy.” China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu said, “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation.”
For China, the new US program of military assistance to claimant countries for maritime security confirms this perception. And if there were any lingering doubt, in November 2015, then-US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a belligerent speech on the US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it cruised through the South China Sea, a fortnight after the USS Lassen’s FONOP exercise near the China-claimed and occupied Subi reef. And now under President Trump, the US has sent an aircraft carrier — the Carl Vinson — strike force into the South China Sea.
Let’s face it. Both China and the US are “militarizing” the South China Sea — at least in each other’s eyes. Other claimants have done so — and have collaborated with the US effort as well, and other outside powers like Japan are about to contribute to this militarization. What is clear is that “militarization” means different things to different nations and people. Countries and experts that accuse others of it should define specifically what they mean. They should specify what it is that China is doing — not what it could do — that others have not. In sum, AMTI should be more cautious in its comments on its “revelations” and be more balanced in its research and analysis. And the media should be more discriminating in their assessment and use of AMTI’s results.
China and the US may be destined to clash militarily. But in this era of belligerent leadership on both sides, analysts and the press should not be hastening that destiny. There is clearly a need for more balance in analyses and reporting regarding China and the South China Sea.