Policy Alert: China’s New Missiles in South China Sea Stir Debate at U.S.-ASEAN Summit
With South China Sea debates already on the agenda at last week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit, new satellite images showing China deployed missiles to a disputed island tested ASEAN’s ability to manage the maritime domain. A joint statement at the close of the gathering did not mention China by name, but it outlined support for “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality, and political independence of all nations” as well as for “ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight.” As host for the summit, the role of the United States in these maritime disputes was also center stage with President Barack Obama calling for “tangible steps” from all sides to resolve the region’s evolving maritime disputes “peacefully and through legal means,” including a “halt to further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas.”
On February 17, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense broke the news China deployed two batteries of eight advanced surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system in recent weeks. Taiwan provided satellite images showing the HQ-9 missile systems with a range of 125 miles now located on Woody Island – called Yongxingdao by China – in the Paracel Islands chain, which has administrated by Beijing since 1974 but is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Pentagon confirmed the presence of the missile systems and considered the moves to be “increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive.” Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to have a “very serious conversation” with China about U.S. concerns Beijing is militarizing the South China Sea.
This Policy Alert covers the reactions in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam to these developments and is part of our series on Energy and Maritime Security for the Rising Powers Initiative’s project exploring the linkages between energy security debates and maritime strategies in the Indo-Pacific.
During a visit to the White House last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would not seek to militarize its claims in the South China Sea. While Beijing, ASEAN members, and the United States differ on what it means to “militarize” an island, China maintains its stance does not preclude setting up defenses like the missile deployments to protect its interests.
After Taiwan’s accusations were made public, the Chinese Ministry of Defense disputed the charges as “hype by certain Western media outlets.” Beijing refused to confirm or deny the existence of the specific missile systems in question, but Chinese naval and air forces have been on these islands for “many years.” Hong Lei, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, held that China’s efforts to strengthen its territory is “totally justified” and has “nothing to do with so-called militarization.”
Commentary in Chinese media outlets chastised ASEAN for putting South China Sea disputes on the U.S.-ASEAN summit agenda held in Sunnylands, California on February 15-16.
- Xinhua regretted the “South China Sea issue” used by United States to push “ASEAN as a counterweight to China’s increasing influence” and embolden others to “engage in military provocation and to internationalize disputes.
- China Daily mocked the summit’s attempt to address the South China Sea since the “issue is not an ASEAN priority” and “no matter how anxious Washington and Manila are to make a case, only a minority of ASEAN members are claimants in the disputes.
- Yu Xiang, director of American Economic Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, predicted new governments in the Philippines and Vietnam will be less likely to confront China on maritime disputes.
Others defended the missile placements as a necessary response to U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea.
- Leaders in Beijing criticized the presence of U.S. warships in the disputed waters during recent freedom of navigation patrols near the Paracels and promised “consequences” for the “deliberate provocation.” Mira Rapp-Hooper, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, thought the missiles were “probably China’s effort to signal a response to the freedom of navigation operations.”
- Raising a distinction between island chain in the South China Sea, Zhu Feng of Nanjing University said President Xi promised to not militarize the Spratly Islands, not the Paracels which are closer in proximity to the Chinese mainland. Zhu expected the missile systems would protect China’s new naval bases at Sanya that will station submarines and an aircraft carrier in the future.
- Zhou Bo, a fellow at the Academy of Military Science, argued U.S. naval patrols could lead to Beijing needing to “increase its own military presence” and making South China Sea militarization a “self-filling prophecy.”
- Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at Shanghai University, defended China’s missile deployments because “deploying surface-to-air missiles on our territory is completely within the scope of our sovereign rights. We have sovereignty there, so we can choose whether to militarize it.”
- Global Times called the HQ-9 a legitimate “defensive weapon” on Chinese territory necessary to respond to threats posed by the U.S. navy.
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani criticized the missile deployment, saying the “unilateral move by China to change the status quo cannot be overlooked.” Given its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and its dependence on sea-lanes of communication in the South China Sea, the Japanese government said it has taken proactive steps to counter Chinese assertiveness. Tokyo strengthened security cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam via military training, joint exercises, and the transfer of patrol and surveillance equipment.
Several newspapers and experts in Japan called for more countermeasures to deter China.
- Yomiuri Shimbun argued “it is essential for U.S. warships to sail [in the South China Sea] regularly.” The inclusion of ASEAN members into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the editorial claimed, “would help restrain China, which is taking hegemonic actions in economic fields as well.”
- Tetsuo Kotani, senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, warned “the deployment of anti-air missiles isa big step toward an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) in the South China Sea.” Though this “is still too early due to China’s insufficient air-domain awareness,” China’s control of these waters and airspace “would make the military balance more favorable for China” and impact “U.S. extended deterrence and the security of Japan.”
- Sankei Shimbun strongly criticized the lack of firm responses from the United States. Short of referring to China’s reclamations in the South China Sea, the U.S.-ASEAN joint statement, the newspaper argued, was “extremely inadequate” to deter China.
- Nikkei Shimbun shared a similar view, saying the lack of U.S. actions would only “encourage Chinese assertiveness.”
Others emphasized the importance of diplomacy in solving the territorial disputes.
- Mainichi Shimbun hailed the U.S.-ASEAN joint statement “a great achievement” for the Obama administration as it calls for “a peaceful resolution to disputes” and “cooperation to address common challenges in the maritime domain.” The latest U.S.-ASEAN summit, the editorial claimed, “should be the starting point for” promoting dialogue among the claimant states to solve the territorial disputes.
- The Chinese missile deployment is an attempt to “stop the U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea,” posited Asahi Shimbun. However, China “must realize” its own behavior is fueling distrust and U.S. countermeasures. Upon this realization, China needs to pursue “peaceful talks” with other countries.
Manila sharply denounced China’s latest move in the South China Sea or what it calls the “West Philippines Sea.” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the missile deployment “increases tensions in the South China Sea.” Similarly, Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez said the “stability in the region is being threatened,” and China intends to use the missiles to challenge civilian aircraft passing through the area. Last fall, Manila appealed to a U.N. arbitration panel to determine if China’s maritime activities violate the Philippine right to exploit its own territorial waters. The panel declared it had jurisdiction on the case and is expected to issue a ruling in May 2016. The Philippines is also in the midst of a presidential election where the country’s future relationship with China is an intense part of the national debate.
Several analysts and media outlets in the Philippines expressed concern about China’s missile deployments.
- Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila, thought China was sending a clear signal it won’t tolerate any American military presence close to its occupied land features. He said the United States and its allies were running out of time to stop China without a more robust response, including strengthening the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
- Although Manila has no claim over the Paracels, The Philippine Star noted the country “remains protective of the resource-rich waters” and hoped the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea would be used to resolve disputes.
- Neri Colmenares, a congressmen running for senate in the Philippines, declared the missile deployments to be an “act of war.” He pledged solidarity with the “Vietnamese people on this fight” since a “threat to them is a threat to the Philippines.”
Several questioned the willingness and ability of ASEAN to resolve Manila’s maritime disputes with China.
- In The Philippine Star,Elfren Cruz asked if ASEAN could survive in light of China’s assertiveness. While the Philippines pushed for a final summit communiqué to shame China by name and support international arbitration as a solution to the maritime disputes, Cruz correctly predicted pro-China Laos and Cambodia would block this effort.
- Federico Pascual, Jr., an writer with The Philippine Star, was disappointed with the U.S.-ASEAN summit having “tiptoed around the China issue” and settling on “making only oblique mention of the rule of law, freedom of navigation.”
- The Philippine Inquirer doubted ASEAN’s consensus-building approach could result in “actual progress on the Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea due to objections by Cambodia and Laos.
On the other hand, some commentators urged Manila to pull back its criticisms of China and rely less on the U.S. military to protect its interests.
- Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said the Philippines “cannot fight the China military” nor rely on the United States as an ally. He concluded Manila needed to rely on international courts to resolve the dispute with China.
- Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies hoped the resignation of pro-American and anti-China Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario would lead to improved ties between Beijing and Manila over their maritime disputes.
News of the missile deployments came as Vietnam marked the 37th anniversary of its border war with China, prompting anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi. During the ASEAN summit, outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged the United States to use “a stronger voice and more practical and more efficient actions requesting termination of all activities changing the status quo.” He also asked Obama to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam to “strengthen political trust” between Vietnam and Washington and to give Hanoi additional tools to defend its interests in the maritime domain. President Obama will make an official trip to Vietnam later in May.
Commentary in Vietnam pressed leaders to stay strong in the face of China’s maritime activities and bolster the country’s military and diplomatic power.
- Alexander Vuving, professor at the Center for Security Studies Asia and a scholar on the Sigur Center’s energy and maritime security project, argued the South China Sea dispute would be a significant challenge for Vietnam, but also an opportunity for its leadership to defend the country’s interests with a stronger military and closer ties with Washington.
- Nguyen Khac Giang, senior researcher at the Viet Nam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, saw China’s recent move as “part of China’s grand strategy to actively control the South China Sea” and a challenge for the pro-China and recently re-elected General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
- Earlier this year, Vietnam publically objected to a Chinese oil rig in the same waters where a similar dispute in 2014 erupted in violent anti-China protests in Vietnam. Nguyen Hung Cuong, maritime analyst at Vietnam’s Scientific Research Institute of Sea and Islands, argued the oil rig looked to be an intentional escalation by China.
- In recent years, Vietnam has tried to build-up its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and its naval forces – including the procurement of several Kilo-class submarines from Russia – to secure its claims in the South China Sea. Nam Nguyen, a warfare officer in the Royal Australian Navy, questioned whether the submarines would allow Vietnam to control the seas during a potential conflict.
Noting the importance of sea-routes for India’s economy, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called the South China Sea one of the “pathways to our prosperity and security.” A department spokesperson, Vikas Swarup, counseled all states to avoid unilateral actions in South China Sea that might escalate tensions in the region. Last year, the United States and India issued a joint vision statement calling for “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation” throughout the Asia-Pacific. China has voiced opposition to several oil and natural gas exploration projects by Indian companies in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Commentary in India on China’s latest missile deployments was largely muted, but several outlets discussed the move within the context of India’s evolving maritime quarrels with China.
- Rather than an “unexpected escalation,” Hindustan Times saw the missile placements as part of China’s predictable effort to “push” the United States out of the area so China could “become the dominant power in the western Pacific.” The newspaper warned if Beijing succeeds in capturing the South China Sea, “it has only two other remaining territorial disputes – and one of them is with India.”
- After China put several of its submarines on patrol in the Indian Ocean – including docking in Pakistan and Sri Lanka –India is building up its anti-submarine warships and demonstrating its ability to project naval power into China’s backyard as well.
- In response to reports the United States and India held “informal discussions” on joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said “countries from outside the area must stop pushing forward the militarization of the South China Sea, cease endangering the sovereignty and national security of littoral countries in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’ and harming the peace and stability of the region.” For its part, India’s defense ministry characterized the news as “highly speculative” as the country does not conduct joint patrols unless under a U.N. mandate.
By Timothy Westmyer, Program and Research Associate, Rising Powers Initiative