Chinese President Xi Jinping recently denied claims that his country is militarizing its possessions in the South China Sea. While Xi has rejected such claims, satellite imagery paints a very different picture. For nearly two years, China has been engaged in a massive land reclamation project in the region increasing the land area of most of its possessions and in the process, turning small reef outcroppings into significantly larger islands. Additionally, military facilities have been identified on these islands and a significant airfield is nearing completion, all of which go far beyond what is required for their immediate defense. In light of this evidence, Xi continues to deny what so many already know.
President Obama had questioned Xi on the South China Sea during talks last week in Washington. Xi was on his first official state visit to the U.S. President Obama has repeatedly called on Beijing to freeze its land reclamation project that has served to raise concern in the U.S. and regional powers about China’s military ambitions in the South China Sea.
On Friday at a news conference with Obama at the White House, Xi for the first time publicly committed that China will not “militarize” its possessions in the South China Sea. Xi stated “Relevant construction activity that China is undertaking in the Nansha Islands (Nansha is the Chinese name for the Spratley Islands) does not target or impact any country and there is no intention to militarize”.
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Unfortunately Xi did not expand on this and instead reiterated the basis for China’s claims to the islands and its rights to conduct activities on them saying “Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are Chinese territory” and “We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful legitimate maritime rights and interests.”
Evidence of Militarization
It is unclear exactly what Xi meant by committing to no “militarization”. Taylor Fravel, an expert on the Chinese military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the Wall Street Journal, “What Xi meant by his statement depends on how he or China defines the term” militarization. He added “Rhetorically, it probably helps the U.S. and others to be able to refer to Xi’s statement when assessing China’s actions in the region…to do so effectively requires a clear and not overly broad definition of militarization.”
Currently all of China’s possessions in the South China Sea have military facilities. While the facilities of some such as on Gaven Reef and Hughes Reef appear to be restricted to self-defense anti-air artillery and naval artillery, others are not nearly as benign. Mischief Reef appears to be the future site of a major naval base while Fiery Cross Reef has just seen the completion of a 3,000 meter long runway; these both far exceed what is necessary for self-defense. Additional airfields are believed to be under construction on Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.
Beijing has repeatedly stated in recent months that the facilities on the islands will have a self-defense military purpose but are primarily to provide marine safety and weather monitoring for the region. A naval base that can accommodate guided missile destroyers is not necessary to provide assistance to mariners in distress nor is an airfield long enough to handle fighters and bombers needed to launch search and rescue missions or provide aerial surveillance of the region.
While China does have a logical right to defend its de facto possessions just as every other claimant nation in the South China Sea does, its actions go far beyond self-defense. Granted China’s possessions are farther away from the mainland than does of other claimant states are from their mainland’s. This point can be used to make the case that China does need an airfield and a naval base for various reasons including logistical. On the other hand, three airfields and deep water naval facilities are completely out of proportion to what is necessary.
Furthermore land reclamation activities are continuing despite Beijing in August saying they had finished. This supposed halt was believed to be a step towards reducing tensions with regional countries and with the U.S. prior to Xi’s visit. Regardless, the reclamation project based on evidence appears to be continuing though at a reduced pace as Beijing seems more focused on the construction of facilities rather than increasing the area of its possessions.
The South China Sea has become one of the dominant issues impacting U.S.-China security relations today in addition to cyberwarfare. As long as China continues to build and develop a military capability that far exceeds that needed for self-defense of its possessions, its motives and actions will continue to be questioned. While Xi claimed that China will not militarize the South China Sea, his statement is rather opaque as to what Beijing regards “militarization” as. The coming months will no doubt see increased activity in facility construction while the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef will become operational. Based on the aircraft that will be stationed there, China’s true intentions will become immediately apparent.