South China Sea: Fiery Cross Reef a Signpost to Chinese Security Policy

South China Sea, Paracel and Spratly Island groups
Map 1. Spratly and Paracel Island groups, South China Sea. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 5 December 2014.

Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s insistence on China’s “peaceful rise“, China’s ongoing program of island reclamations and infrastructure development in the Spratly Islands threatens regional stability. Regional states remain concerned about China’s long-term strategy for the South China Sea (SCS).

A recent IHS Jane’s article detailed China’s recent land-reclamation project on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands. According to the Jane’s report, China has raised a new island measuring 3,000 metres in length, with a width of 200 to 300 metres on the formerly submerged Fiery Cross Reef. This development is significant for many reasons.

Firstly, the dimensions of this reclamation project point to China’s intention to use this new island as an airstrip. The dimensions are significant. At 3 km in length, this airstrip would easily be large enough to land and base Chinese fighter jets and accompanying refuelling aircraft. By comparison, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Tindal base – home of the RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornet No. 75 Squadron in the Northern Territory, is 2,743 metres in length. Moreover, in addition to Fiery Cross’ potential use as an island military airstrip, Airbus Defence and Space imagery released by Jane’s  appears to depict the creation of a harbour at Fiery Cross large enough to accommodate warships, an observation also made by the New York Times recently. Such potential would significantly expand China’s reach and power-projection capabilities within the southern reaches of the SCS and highlights the asymmetric security imbalance between China and competing claimant states, thus adding to the already growing regional security dilemma.

Related to this is the geostrategic significance of this development. Such a development should come as no surprise to SCS observers. As noted by Ankit Panda over at The Diplomat recently, prior to this development China was the sole state amongst Spratly Islands claimants (Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Malaysia) without a Spratlys island airstrip. For a state which claims 90% of the South China Sea as sovereign territory, this omission is glaring. Such an airstrip would have geostrategic significance for China, as it would allow China to project power in the southern reaches of the SCS from an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” island base. Such a capability would address this imbalance and directly threaten the territorial claims of Vietnam and the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Malaysia. Known to mariners as “dangerous ground“, this revamped Fiery Cross would significantly raise the threat level within the SCS – to both claimant states and potentially to merchant shipping – and heighten rather than lessen regional tensions, adding to the growing regional instability.

These are the immediate threats. Viewed as part of an overarching Chinese grand strategy, these developments can be interpreted as part of China’s long-term plan to enforce its territorial claims to the SCS. According to this narrative, this airstrip is merely a building block, one piece of a larger infrastructure development program, which will see the progression of further similar reclamation/airstrip construction projects in the SCS. Additional recent developments would appear to add credence to this claim. As revealed by IHS Jane’s in April, officials from the China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC) have disclosed efforts by China to build multifunctional floating docks to be deployed for use in the Paracel and Spratly islands. Such platforms are intended for use in the “creation and maintenance of an island”, according to Jane’s and would allow China to populate significant portions of the Spratly and Paracel islands, further strengthening their territorial claims. It would seem unlikely that such platforms would be constructed without their being embedded in a longer-term deployment strategy.

The underlying intention behind the construction of two or more such SCS island airstrips is, according to Bonnie Glaser – Senior Advisor for America’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – for China to implement an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) or zones over the South China Sea. According to this narrative, China’s November 2013 declaration of an ADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and significant portions of the East China Sea (ECS) was merely a foretaste of Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, a brief glimpse of what China has in store for the future of the SCS. As Glaser notes, in order to enforce an SCS ADIZ, China needs the capability to monitor the airspace over the SCS and to do this requires the construction of the enabling air bases. Significantly, construction of these island airstrips and accompanying harbours would provide China with this capability.

South China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone
Map 2. Possible Paracel and Spratly Islands ADIZs – superimposed over major oil shipping routes. Note how both zones overlap the major oil shipping route to Japan.

Moreover, when one overlays a map of the major oil shipping routes in the SCS (see Map 2) with what Paracel and Spratly island group ADIZs might look like, the full extent of this threat becomes apparent. Based on posited 200 KM Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ADIZs, it can be seen how the major oil route to Japan through the SCS neatly bisects these two ADIZs, thus graphically illustrating how these ADIZs would pose a significant resource security threat to Japan. Additionally, when one considers these possible ADIZs in the context of the existing East China Sea ADIZ over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, the threat of assertive Chinese sovereignty to Tokyo’s security interests becomes even more apparent. With this in mind, it seems likely that in 2015 we will see growing military modernisation and expansion of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

These observations would seem to fit with the recent “Asia for Asians” rhetoric emanating from Beijing recently. First referenced by President Xi in a speech delivered at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) in May, the security implications of this theme were further emphasised by China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at the recent Xiangshang Forum in Beijing in November. Xi’s words at the CICA conference were: “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia”. During his Xiangshang presentation, Zhenmin remarked: “Asian countries bear primary responsibility for the security of their region”, further elucidating Xi’s words. However, given the aforementioned dilemma – where China is both the major source of its neighbours’ economic security, and their major security concern – both President Xi and Foreign Minister Zhenmin appear to be conflating Asian security needs with China’s. Clearly the two are not the same.


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