Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea include the Spratly Islands (inside the outlined area) and the Parcel Islands to the northwest, off the coast of Vietnam (New York Times graphic)

From our “this was inevitable,” and “will Obama cower and hide (again)” files…

First, it doesn’t take a diplomat or an East Asia analyst at DIA to understand that the granddaddy of all territorial disputes has been underway in the region for some time.  Beijing has asserted control over a number of small islands, reefs and other specks of real estate in the South China Sea–territory also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.  At stake is the ability to control important sea lanes that lead to and from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and of course, the PRC.

Beyond that, there are huge, untapped reserves of oil beneath the sea, and Beijing wants to control those assets as well. As a nation that relies heavily on petroleum imports, China understands the importance of oil resources it can control, reducing dependence on suppliers in the Middle East and North America.

To solidify its claims, the PRC has been establishing military bases on some of the atolls and even creating new “islands” on top of reefs that lie just below the surface.  As you’d probably expect, Beijing has been playing the long game, sustaining a multi-year effort to build landing strips, radar sites, barracks and other facilities for ground, air and naval forces.   

But over the past 18 months, the pace of these efforts has accelerated.  As The New York Times reported last summer, China is currently building at least two more airfields on small islands that are part of the Spratly chain.  The remote bases are actually closer to the Philippines than the Chinese mainland, which lies more than 500 miles away.  While the new installations won’t support large units, they make it easier for Beijing to maintain air and naval patrols in the disputed region.

In response, the U.S. has sent Navy vessels and a B-52 bomber on patrols through the area.  The Navy ship, the USS Lassen, passed within 12 miles of Subi Reef last summer, and in December, two B-52s overflew a man-made Chinese atoll in the area.  Beijing protested the mission, prompting the Pentagon to suggest that the bombers strayed off course due to bad weather.  Never mind that international law prohibits the establishment of territorial limits around artificial islands.   More recently, a second ship, the USS Curtis Wilbur, conducted a patrol near Triton Island, part of the Parcel group, northwest of the Spratlys.  Both China and Vietnam claim the Parcels.

Now, Beijing has raised the stakes, making a move aimed at discouraging future U.S. military flights in the area.  Commercial imagery has revealed the deployment of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, which is also part of the Parcel chain.  Analysts say two batteries, with eight missile launchers and a radar unit, were moved to the island between February 3rd and the 14th.  China claims the missiles have been there “for years,” but no one is buying that claim.   The missiles and launchers were arrayed in a non-tactical arrangement along the beach, to make it easier for spy satellites and commercial platforms to detect their presence.



Chinese HQ-9 launchers and radars deployed on the beach at Woody Island last week (ImageSat International imagery via Fox News)

The HQ-9 is a Chinese knock-off of Russia’s sophisticated S-300 air defense system.  With a range of 125 nautical miles, the missiles on Woody Island could threaten military and commercial air traffic across a broad swath of the South China Sea.

With this latest military move, Beijing has clearly thrown down the gauntlet to Washington.  And, as with the recent provocations from North Korea and Iran, the U.S. must decide how to respond.  Once upon a time–as recently as the 1990s–Washington would dispatch a significant military force to fly (or cruise) through the area.  But times have changed and so have regional perceptions.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but our recent actions don’t convey that status, as evidenced by our “apology” to China for the off-course B-52s and “thanking” Tehran for its treatment of our sailors that were detained after their patrol boat suffered a mechanical failure and drifted into Iranian waters.  Iran’s kindness included forcing our personnel to kneel with their hands behind their head.  The Iranians also photographed one sailor who burst into tears and aired that video on state-run TV.

At some point, we will probably send another military aircraft on a freedom of navigation mission between the Spratlys and the Parcels.  It’s doubtful the Chinese would launch a preemptive attack against a B-52, P-3 or another platform.  But it’s quite possible that the HQ-9 battery may lock on to the aircraft with its target tracker radar.  Under international law, that is considered an act of war, and American aircrews would have the legal right to defend themselves.

U.S. officials haven’t published our rules of engagement in the South China Sea, but its a fair bet that our pilots and Navy commanders have been told to avoid a conflict at all costs.  Obviously, no one wants to go to war over a localized incident, but until we show greater resolve, China will continue to test us in the South China Sea and both Iran and North Korea will be plotting their next challenges as well.