Chinese Naval BasesChina’s leaders employ tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China’s strategic objectives through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking armed conflict with the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Indo-Pacific region. These tactics are particularly evident in China’s pursuit of its territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas as well as along its borders with India and Bhutan. In 2018, China continued militarization in the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and longrange surface-to-air missiles on outposts in the Spratly Islands, violating a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands.
The South China Sea plays an important role in security considerations across East Asia because Northeast Asia relies heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through South China Sea shipping lanes, including more than 80 percent of the crude oil to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups and other land features within its self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” – claims disputed in whole or part by Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Taiwan, which occupies Itu Aba Island in the Spratly Islands, makes the same territorial assertions as China.
In 2009, China protested extended continental shelf submissions in the South China Sea made by Malaysia and Vietnam. In its protest to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, China included its ambiguous “nine-dash line” map. China also stated in a 2009 note verbale that it has “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.” In July 2016, a tribunal established pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention ruled that China’s claims to “historic rights” over the South China Sea encompassed by the “nine-dash line” could not exceed its maritime rights under the Law of the Sea Convention.
In March 2016, with regard to China’s activities near Scarborough Shoal, U.S. Chief of Naval Operation John Richardson stated, “I think we see some surface ship activity and those sorts of things, survey type of activity, going on. That’s an area of concern...a next possible area of reclamation.” Moreover, in November 2018, it was reported that China installed a facility of what appears to be an information collection sensor on the Bombay Reef in the Paracel islands without undergoing massive reclamation. The possibility of China conducting the same type of construction activities — meaning constructions not requiring massive reclamation — in the Scarborough Shoal has been pointed out.
The U.S. DoD’s “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” (June 2017) notes that China added over 3,200 acres of land in the Spratly Islands by late 2015 and completed the land reclamation. The international community has repeatedly suggested that China is militarizing its activities in the South China Sea. For example, the U.S. DOD’s “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” (August 2018) states “The United States opposes further militarization of disputed land features,” recognizing that “China’s reclamation activities have far surpassed that of other claimants.” In June 2018, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.”
At a 2018 exhibition, China displayed a ship-to-ship variant of the YJ-12 called the YJ-12A and the ground-launched anti-ship variant YJ-12B. China has deployed the YJ-12B to several outposts in the South China Sea. China has a robust and redundant Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) architecture over land areas and within 300 nm (555 km) of its coast that relies on an extensive early warning radar network, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM systems. China is also placing radars and air defense weapons on outposts in the South China Sea, further extending its IADS.
The construction of new airfields and hangars on outposts in the South China Sea extends the possible operating areas of PLA aviation forces. Future deployed Chinese combat aircraft operating from Spratly Island outposts could extend their range and/or loiter time over the South China Sea or even reach into the Indian Ocean.
In 2018, China continued its gradual deployment of military jamming equipment as well as advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems to its Spratly Islands outposts. The missile systems are the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by China in the disputed South China Sea. China completed shore-based infrastructure on four small outposts in the Spratly Islands in early 2016. Facilities on Johnson, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs include administrative buildings, weapons stations, and sensor emplacements.
China’s Spratly Islands outpost expansion effort was focused on building out the land-based capabilities of three large outposts – Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs – after completion of four smaller outposts early in 2016. No substantial land has been reclaimed at any of the outposts since China completed its artificial island creation in the Spratly Islands in late 2015 after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys. Construction of aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communication facilities at each of the three outposts was underway throughout 2017. The outposts may be capable of supporting military operation in the Spratly Islands and throughout the region, but no permanent large-scale air or naval presence has been observed.
China has completed shore-based infrastructure on four small outposts in the Spratly Islands: Johnson, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs. Administrative buildings, weapons stations, sensor emplacements, and other facilities remain under construction on the outposts.
By early 2018, China had completed more extensive military infrastructure on three larger outposts in the Spratly Islands at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. These installations included aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communications facilities.
No substantial land had been reclaimed at any of the outposts since China completed its artificial island creation in the Spratly Islands in late 2015, after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys. China has stated these projects are mainly to improve marine research, safety of navigation, and the living and working conditions of personnel stationed on the outposts. However, the outposts provide airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities that will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent military and paramilitary presence in the area. This improves China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them.
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