Missiles and Signals in the Paracel Islands

Blog | March 29, 2016

With tensions rising in the South China Sea, any military movement in the region can cause concern for the U.S. In a piece for EWI's Policy Innovation Blog, Steven Stashwick discusses the implications of China's recent deployment of anti-aircraft missiles and fighter jets to Woody Island.

Last month, China deployed advanced HQ-9 anti-aircraft missiles and fighter jets to Woody Island in the South China Sea's Paracel chain. Unlike the multinational mish-mash of claims and occupations in the Spratly islands to the south, the Paracels are claimed only by Vietnam and China, and controlled entirely by China ever since defeating South Vietnam in a 1974 clash. The New York Times reported that the deployment underscores the growing risk of conflict among the Chinese, their neighbors and the United States. The Heritage Foundation asserted the move makes clear that China is prepared to employ military forces to support its [South China Sea] claims. Senator John McCain called the deployment a blatant violation of Chinese President Xi Jinping's promise not to pursue regional militarization. And the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) suggested the move foreshadows China's militarization of its sites in the Spratly Islands.

Against this clamor came a rare attempt from the highest ranks of former-officialdom to correct the narrative. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific during the 2001 collision between a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and the Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it in the South China Sea, and a former Director of National Intelligence. Writing in the Washington Post, Blair argues that 1) the missiles deployed on Woody Island are not that militarily significant; 2) President Xi excluded Woody Island (where China's claims are stronger than elsewhere) from his non-militarization pledge; and 3) the deployment is self-defeating because it motivates other regional claimants to cooperate against China.

Concluding that the missiles and planes on Woody Island are a harbinger of future deployments or use-of-force in the Spratly chain exceeds the present facts expressly because President Xi's non-militarization pledge excludes the Paracels. Speaking at the White House last fall, Xi said that ...relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the island of South-Nansha [Spratly] Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization. Intent can change with circumstances and a listener's understanding of intent can differ from the speaker's. China may intend to militarize the South China Sea dispute and it may deploy weapons systems to the Spratly Islands in unambiguous violation of Xi's pledge. It may even use those weapons systems to enforce claims against regional rivals. And if similar weapons systems appear on the Spratlys, it will tell us much more about how far China intends to move down that path. But these scenarios are no more likely today than before those missiles and aircraft appeared on Woody Island.

AMTI believes the missiles on Woody Island indicate that China intends to position ...both an anti-access umbrella and a power projection capability on the Spratlys. They suggest China's next steps may be to harden aircraft shelters, place military radars and sensors, deploy missiles, ships, and aircraft to its features, and establish territorial baselines around the Spratlys (as they have for the Paracels).

The U.S. should remain especially vigilant about these indicators. Should China deploy missiles, ships, and aircraft to the Spratlys, this would signal an unmistakable escalation. However, as I have discussed, the fact that China has not declared territorial baselines around the Spratly Islands underscores its current preference to avoid an open clash over its South China Sea claims by keeping them ambiguous (in that, excluding the Paracels, they are nonexistent). Further, the projects in the Paracels that China has replicated in the Spratlys are categorically different from the weapons hardware appearing on Woody Island. Land reclamation, runway construction and other infrastructure projects all enable military projection, but also have civilian use (even granted that such civilian utility alone does not justify the scale of China's construction). Missiles and fighter aircraft do not. Suggesting the presence of the latter on Woody Island augurs their deployment to the Spratlys conflates dual-use projects like port facilities and runways with actual weapons systems merely supported or enabled by those projects.

Much of the current analytical fracas centers on how you define militarization. Senator McCain believes China's infrastructure projects there and elsewhere constitute militarization because they can enable Chinese force projection in the region. That view is supported by unclassified assessments from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in response to inquiries from Senator McCain.

Viewing the South China Sea as a military problem, this makes sense. Militaries plan against the capabilities they might face in a worst-case scenario, not intentions. However, while it is important to understand the military capability China could project in the Spratlys, it is not Pollyannaish to recognize that China has not realized this capability yet. The key sentence in the DNI's assessment is that, although we have not detected the deployment of significant military capabilities at its Spratly Islands outposts, China has constructed facilities to support the deployment of high-end military capabilities. In other words, China's ports in the Spratlys can support naval vessels, the runways can land military aircraft, and the radars can cue surface-to-air or anti-ship missiles, but there are no naval vessels, military aircraft, or missiles deployed there now. As long as there are not, the political options for peaceful resolution of the disputes are more viable.

As Admiral Blair acknowledges, any precedent of increased military presence in the South China Sea is concerning. But as Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted when the Woody Island missiles were revealed, US conception of South China Sea militarization refers only to weapons stationed on land, not on the actual Sea itself. China already has extensive military capability in the region (as does the U.S.). Each of the handful of Type 052C and Type 052D-class destroyers believed to be assigned to China's South Sea Fleet carries more HQ-9s than have been deployed on Woody Island. This is no doubt part of the reason neither Blair nor AMTI view the missiles on Woody Island as militarily game-changing.

But the political implications of land and sea power are very different. While navies can project power persistently, ships must eventually return to port. Land power is permanent unless a deliberate effort is made to (re)move it, which can look like a withdrawal or retreat. And so for the South China Sea territorial disputes, the lost face of removing land-based systems in place is likely to be a political cost that is prohibitive to a diplomatic settlement. It seems very unlikely that China will ever submit to arbitration of the Paracels with forces garrisoned there. This makes it all the more important to keep them as free as possible of any claimant's troops or weaponry for any non-military settlement to be realistic. This should be the focus before jumping ahead to an as-yet theoretical military problem.

Steven Stashwick is a writer and analyst based in New York City. He spent ten years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer with multiple deployments to the Western Pacific. He writes about maritime and security affairs in East Asia and serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter.

To read this piece on The Diplomat, click here.