“New wave of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea?” by Le Hong Hiep

2018/52, 7 May 2018

On 2 May 2018, U.S. news network CNBC reported that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the Spratlys, namely Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. The report substantiates the concern among regional observers that China may soon start a new round of escalation in the South China Sea after a relatively calm period.

Since the release of the arbitral tribunal ruling on the Philippines vs. China case in July 2016 until early this year, China kept a low profile on the South China Sea issue by quietly completing its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys and refraining from major assertive actions. Beijing even showed good will and made efforts to accelerate discussions with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct for the sea. China’s wish to counter adverse ramifications generated by the 2016 ruling as well as its emphasis on the successful organization of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th congress last fall could have played a role in its decision to reduce regional maritime tensions.

However, now with the 2016 ruling gradually fading away and President Xi Jinping further consolidating his power after the 19th Party congress, China seems ready to reassert itself in the South China Sea. Prior to the recent reports on China’s installation of missiles in the Spratlys, there had been several other indications of China’s renewed assertiveness in regional waters.

For example, in early April, President Xi Jinping presided over a grand naval parade and a week-long series of live-fire drills in the South China Sea that involved a large Chinese naval flotilla, including aircraft carrier Liaoning. On 18 April, two Xian Y-7 Chinese military transport planes were spotted on the Mischief Reef for the first time. Before that, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had quietly deployed communications and radar jamming equipment on the Fiery Cross Reef and the Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, which has sparked a diplomatic protest from Vietnam.

In another less noticed but equally important development, the National People’s Congress of China decided in March that the China Coast Guard would be placed under the People’s Armed Police Force, which has since January answered directly to the Central Military Commission, a body chaired by President Xi Jinping. Previously, the China Coast Guard was managed by the civilian State Oceanic Administration. The move, which has turned the China Coast Guard into a de facto military force, is yet another indication of China’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea dispute.

As such, China can be seen to be adopting a two-pronged approach to establish its effective control over the South China Sea. On the one hand, China has militarized its outposts, especially its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, to strengthen its power projection capabilities and to deter against maritime rivals. On the other hand, Beijing has streamlined its maritime forces and consolidated their command structure to enforce its control over the sea more effectively.

The above developments do not bode well for the prospects of the South China Sea as they would further militarize the dispute and heighten the chance of armed conflicts in the region. They would also invite counteractions from regional players, including the US and Japan. For example, following reports of China’s missile deployment, the White House has warned Beijing that there will be consequences for its growing militarization. As such, the recent tranquility in the South China Sea may turn out to be just a short-lived calm before the storm.

Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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