Expert unmasks China strategy of ‘creeping expansion’
A prominent global security scholar has unmasked China’s “grand strategy” of gaining control of the Asia Pacific Region by “creeping expansion” rather than waging major battles.
Dr. Alexander L. Vuving, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies based in Honolulu, Hawaii, writes in an essay posted by Commentators.com that China is creating its own islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea to leverage its claim on the strategic areas teeming with marine life and potentially huge oil and gas reserves.
Beijing’s territorial claims — based on its self-declared horseshoe-shaped, nine-dash line map — cover areas close to the coasts of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China claims practically the whole South China Sea, a vast expanse of water that encompasses islands, islets, atolls and reefs that stretches from the Paracels, Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea and Pulau and Natuna Islands in Indonesian waters.
“The ultimate goal is to gain control of the region. The campaign to achieve this goal relies on creeping expansion, rather than major battles,” wrote Vuving in a commentary aptly titled “China’s Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating its own Islands in the South China Sea.”
Dr. Vuving studied political science, economics, sociology and electronic engineering at Cornell University, the Johannes Gutenberg University and the Budapest University of Technology. He received his master of arts (summa cum laude) in political science, sociology and economics, and his doctor’s degree (magna cum laude) in political science from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany.
According to Vuving, Beijing’s preferred tactics in its protracted strategy for regional dominance, often at the expense of its smaller and weaker neighbors, are salami slicing and small-stick diplomacy.
This strategy, Vuving stresses, requires three “imperatives,” each of which is built on top of another, namely:
First, to avoid open armed strikes as much as possible; clashes can be initiated, but only to exploit an existing favorable situation.
Second, to control the most strategic positions in the sea; if not already in possession, these positions must be seized stealthily if possible and in a limited conflict if necessary.
And third, to use these position as logistical hubs and bases for power projection.
Vuving — whose varied areas of research interests include Asian security, the rise of China and Vietnamese politics — observed that the history of the China’s involvement in the South China Sea dispute has neatly followed these imperatives.
Two armed conflicts
He cited the fact that of the numerous attempts by Beijing to snatch new possessions during these six decades, only two involved armed conflicts.
The first took place in January 1974 against South Vietnam during which China ended up seizing the western half of the Paracel Islands, the Crescent Group, from the former.
The second was a far smaller—but no less bloody—skirmish against unified Vietnam at Johnson South Reef in March 1988.
“What’s remarkable about these two confrontations is that they both were fought at a time when a power vacuum was swelling in the region, with the United States withdrawing at the time of the first, and the Soviet Union pulling out at that of the second,” Vuving writes.
“In both events, China also enjoyed the acquiescence of the United States, the most powerful actor in the larger Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the military clashes caused little diplomatic repercussions,” he adds.
The second imperative of taking control the most strategic positions is reflected in Beijing’s choice of places to occupy in the disputed areas.
Quality, not quantity
Thus, he notes that when China tangled with Vietnam for a foothold in the Spratly Islands in 1988, Beijing traded quantity for quality, taking six reefs as opposed to 11 by Hanoi.
Five of the six, Vuving opines, are among the most strategic features in the archipelago.
China’s first choice in the Spratly Islands was Fiery Cross Reef, one of the best in the archipelago in terms of location and the potential for land reclamation. The atoll occupies an ideal spot at the western gateway into the Spratly Islands and is one of the few Spratly islands that are most exposed to the main transoceanic shipping routes traversing the South China Sea.
The atoll, known as Kagitingan in the Philippines and Yongshu in China, is the focus of ongoing reclamation by Beijing as shown by satellite images released last month in IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
The Jane’s report says China is building what could be an airstrip and apron on the reclaimed area measuring 3,000 meters long and 200 meters wide.
Its location not too far from, but not too close to, the other island groups reduces its vulnerability and enlarges its sphere of influence. Adding to these advantages, Fiery Cross Reef occupies an area of 110 square kilometers, one of the largest in the Spratly Islands.
Four of the remaining five—Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef and Cuarteron Reef—lie at the edge of four different island groups, from where they can control a large maritime area and the key waterways into the Spratly Islands. The two land features that China later added to its possessions also boast immense strategic values.
PH reefs seized
Vuving observes that Mischief Reef, which China surreptitiously took from the Philippines in late 1994 or January 1995, lies at the center of the eastern wing of the Spratly Islands and close to the water highways that run along the eastern South China Sea.
China also seized in 2012 the strategically located Scarborough Shoal, a traditional Filipino fishing ground that lies only 123 miles from Palauig, Zambales.
Known in the Philippines as Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal, the area is a triangle-shaped chain of reefs with a perimeter of 29 miles. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of 58 sq. miles.
Manila decided to take Beijing’s maritime claims to arbitration in January 2013 by an Arbitral Tribunal under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in an effort to secure a peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute.
“With its control of the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal and several strategically located lands in the Spratly archipelago, China is far more advantaged than any other countries to project control of strategic sea routes,” Vuving writes.
For example, he explains, Woody Islands (the largest feature in the Paracels), Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal form a “four-point constellation from which, with a radius of only 250 nautical miles, the entire main body of the South China Sea can be kept under intense watch.”
“This means that all it takes for China to become the lord of the South China Sea is to develop these assets into robust platforms that can provide both logistic support for a myriad of fishing boats, government vessels, submarines and aircraft to dominate the sky and the water of the region, and some grounds for generating large economic and security zones,” Vuving stresses.
This was how China transformed Woody Island, an uninhabited sandbank 60 years ago into a fortress populated by at least 1,000 military personnel and civilians, Vuving says. The island now features a 2,700-meter airport with a runway and a parallel taxiway, which is capable of handling eight or more fourth-generation aircrafts such as SU-30MKK fighters and JH-7 bombers, and a 1,000-meter long deep-water port that can accommodate vessels of 5,000 tons or more.
Massive building projects
According to Vuving, China has also been conducting “massive construction projects” to turn the rocks China occupies into islands down south in the Spratlys.
Quoting Taiwan’s top intelligence official Lee Hsiang-chou, Vuving says Chinese President Xi Jinping has approved plans to reclaim lands to build military installations not only on Fiery Cross Reef but also on the Cuerteron Reef, Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef and Hughes Reef.
It would not be surprising for Beijing to built military installations, like airstrips and deep water harbors at Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal and eventually set up an air defense identification zone in the South China, Vuving surmises.
“With its enlarged and strategically located islands, China has more potential than any other major powers to gain air and naval supremacy in the South China Sea,” says Vuving.
“Although Beijing still has a long way to go, it is not unimaginable to see in the next two decades a South China Sea dotted with powerful Chinese staging bases that stretch from the Paracel Islands in the northwest to Mischief Reef in the southeast, and from Scarborough Shoal in the northeast to Fiery Cross Reef in the southwest.”
In the face of the creeping expansion, Vuving suggests the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could send international observers as part of ASEAN-China 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to verify the constructions and exert diplomatic pressure to persuade to suspend the work.
Another way to challenge China’s strategy, Vuving says, is to take a page from Beijing’s own playbook.
“For example, in a first step, Vietnam can offer the Indian military access to naval facilities in Cam Ranh Bay and the U.S. military access to air bases in Da Nang, two of Vietnam’s most strategic locations along the South China Sea coast,” he says.
If China does not heed the message, the U.S. and Japanese militaries and coast guards could be offered access to Cam Ranh and Da Nang, from which they can patrol the South China Sea.
Ultimately, if China is still determined to “turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake,” then a strong alliance between Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States, Japan and India is necessary to redress the imbalance of power,” Vuving says.
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