Opinion World

The Long Game in the South China Sea

China outwitted the US by landing H-6 strategic bombers on Woody Island. Can the US get its act together?

Tensions are once again simmering in the South China Sea, after Chinese media reported that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had landed H-6K strategic bombers on an airstrip on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracels group of islands. An official website of the Chinese armed forces reported:

Several H-6Ks from an unidentified aviation division, headed by division commander Hao Jianke, took off from an undisclosed air base in South China and made a simulated strike against sea targets before landing on an island in the South China Sea…the operation provided experience for Air Force bomber units to use islands as their bases.

Analysts believe that the deployment of the H-6K long-range strategic bomber on Woody is likely to give the PLA coverage across the South China Sea region. Beijing is already believed to have deployed the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems, advanced radar systems and truck-mounted surface-to-air or anti-ship cruise missiles on Woody Island.

Therefore, the choice of Woody Island for the latest mission appears to have been a well-thought one. The People’s Republic of China has been in control of the island, which is roughly 250 miles from the mainland, since 1956. The feature is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. In comparison, the Spratlys have a larger set of claimants and are much further away from the mainland.

The Pentagon and Vietnam’s foreign ministry were prompt in their initial criticism following Chinese State media confirmation of the bomber mission. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, dismissed the concerns, calling it “a normal training exercise” and arguing that referring to the drill as militarization was “reading too much into it.” A few days later, Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan announced that the US was uninviting China from the RIMPAC naval drills this year. The decision was being taken given China’s militarisation of islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

In particular, Logan emphasised that the US had “strong evidence” that China had deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested features in the Spratly Islands. Beijing responded to that rebuke by comparing its activities in the region to the US military’s work in Hawaii and Guam, criticising Washington for its “negative mindset” and claiming that the US had “ignored the facts” and closed the “door to communication.”

The above sequence of events leads us to a set of specific questions, answering which will help unpack the evolving dynamic in the region. What does China hope to achieve by expanding military capacities in the South China Sea? How do the rival claimants view Chinese activities? What can the US or the international community do to counter Chinese actions?

Diplomatic jargon is often meant to obfuscate intentions, requiring careful decoding. But in the present case, China’s description of its actions offers a rather clear view of its intentions. Beijing says that the latest mission was a normal training exercise – not tantamount to militarisation – on Chinese territory. This not only reinforces Chinese claims to the structures in the South China Sea but is also an attempt to normalise Chinese military activities in the region. Moreover, the comparisons to Guam and Hawaii are a sign of China’s growing confidence in its capacities in the region, along with an acknowledgement that it intends to further expand the security infrastructure there.

For Beijing, repeated missions in the South China Sea and publicising them are only partly about displays of military proficiency and superiority, training and strengthening its hold on the structures. During a Senate hearing prior to his confirmation as chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson had already acknowledged that, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” In the event of a war with the US, however, analysts believe that deployments on these structures would pose only a minor to insignificant threat.

The expanded security infrastructure and repeated displays of might, therefore, are now primarily about presenting a psychological fait accompli to China’s neighbours and the US. This is Beijing’s long game. The aim is to expand capacities and project power in order to emerge as the preeminent power controlling the area, without necessarily restricting freedom of navigation and overflight but bringing them under Chinese jurisdiction. The impact of this strategy, coupled with Beijing’s dollar diplomacy, is evident in Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s defeatist attitude along with the softening of ASEAN’s stand despite continuous Chinese militarisation.

Despite this, counter-balancing and capacity building remain important policy tools for the small, regional states. For instance, Vietnam recently held its first ever joint naval drills with India, the Philippines – despite Duterte’s rhetoric – held the large-scale Balikatan exercises with the US and ASEAN expanded its strategic partnership with Australia with the first-of-its-kind Special Summit in Sydney. However, America’s unpredictability under Donald Trump and its inability to devise an effective strategy to restrain Chinese island building and militarisation present a difficult proposition for smaller Southeast Asian states. This reinforces the notion that while America is a Pacific power, it is still far away geographically, whereas China is right next door and a massive trade partner. Singapore’s hesitation with regard to the Indo-Pacific Quad can be understood from this perspective.

In effect, Washington’s failure in the region is of strategic intent and actions. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) are a limited tactical response. What the US needs to focus on is the perception of its vacillating commitment. Only a tangible re-structuring of its regional engagement will allow the US to regain the peacetime edge. Undoubtedly, this will be a long game, and the important thing for Washington is to stay the course.

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About the author

Manoj Kewalramani

Manoj Kewalramani is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Over the past 11 years, he has worked with prominent news networks in India and China. His news and editorial work includes field reporting, commissioning and managing assignments and producing shows and documentaries along with formulating and executing digital news strategies. Manoj is an alumnus of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy. At Takshashila, he curates a weekly brief, Eye on China, which tracks developments in China from an Indian perspective.