By Benjamin Blandin
Little mentioned in the mainstream media, the South China Sea is nevertheless central to Southeast Asia, the Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific and the world. Indeed, this sea of approximately 3.5 million km² is located at the heart of the “Asian Mediterranean”, a vast economic hub and an absolutely crucial area for the movement of people and goods across Asia.
The South China Sea thus sees 30% of world trade ($5,000 billion) and 25% of oil transported by sea transit each year, including 70% of the oil imported by China and 80% of that imported by Japan. In addition, its waters contain considerable resources: gas, oil, fish and polymetallic nodules in particular.
The South China Sea (East Sea for Vietnam and West Sea for the Philippines), is particularly interconnected, with the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea to the northeast, the Philippine Sea to the east, the Sulu and Celebes Seas to the southeast, the Java Sea to the south, the Singapore and Malacca Straits, then the Andaman Sea to the west, as well as the Gulf of Thailand. This space is therefore coveted by a large number of players. Especially by Beijing, which has been seeking for several years to extend its influence there, in particular through the construction of artificial islands. But is this important effort by the People’s Republic really justified, in economic and strategic terms?
A highly contested maritime space
Strangely, while the South China Sea extends from the southern island of Taiwan to the border of the Java Sea, also bordering the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, it is generally the only portion of this sea claimed by both China and the Taiwan authorities, and which represents approximately 80% of its total surface area, which is generally considered.
Apart from the island of Hainan, this immense space includes almost no land surface. It is barely 13 km² of land at high tide, including 200 islands and islets as well as a thousand maritime features including rocks, atolls, coral reefs, shoals and sandbanks.
However, these confetti of territories are extremely contested to varying degrees by a large number of countries including China and the authorities of Taiwan on the one hand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei on the other hand. Singapore also has a window on the South China Sea through its possession of Pedra Branca, but is not a party to the disputes.
73 incidents were recorded in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2020 (an estimate that is probably underestimated). Incidents are regular between, on the one hand, Chinese coast guard, maritime militia and navy vessels and, on the other hand, Vietnamese fishing and coast guard vessels (nearly 50% of the total) but also Filipinos (25%) and Malaysians (2%). The balance corresponding to confrontations between ships from the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, a major issue
Beyond economic aspects, the Chinese authorities seek to secure a strategic area in the South China Sea free of American forces or bases. Within this maritime space, China has gradually established since the 1970s real control, particularly military, of the main groups of islands and, in particular, the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. In the first archipelago, which represents most of the land area, Beijing has total control over all the main islands and islets. In the second, mainly composed of coral reefs and atolls, non-claimable within the meaning of the UN, control is looser but the Chinese army has, by far, the largest “islands” – even if these are in reality artificial coral reefs.
This control is exercised through the massive reclamation of coral reefs in order to turn them into real air and naval bases from which the famous “maritime militia”, the powerful coast guard and the navy, which regularly organizes naval exercises, are deployed in great magnitude.
It is also to and from these islands that the entire range of gray zone techniques used by the Chinese authorities can be observed in order to strengthen their claims through a succession of “faits accomplis”: creation of administrative entities, cruises and arrival of tourists by plane, archaeological research, scientific work, incentives to populate certain islands, not to mention massive propaganda in the media, to name just a few.
The fortified islands, impregnable bastions…
As part of these permanent installations, China occupies around twenty islands in the Paracel archipelago, six of which have a port, four of which have a set of antennas, radars and radomes and only one, Woody Island, a three-kilometer airstrip allowing the landing of all types of planes.
In the Spratly archipelago, which includes the majority of islands, islets, rocks and other maritime features, China controls “only” seven “islands” but these represent most of the land area overall. If four of them, Cuarteron Reef, Gavin Reef, Johnson Reef and Hughes Reef, are relatively modest in size and mainly include radar and radome type sensors, the “islands” of Fiery Cross Reef , Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, in reality reclaimed atolls, are today real air and naval bases.
These bases each house a three-kilometre-long runway, from which fighter, maritime patrol or anti-submarine warfare aircraft can take off. There is also a deep-water port, barracks, warehouses, but also complete sets of maritime and air radars as well as batteries of “aircraft carrier killer” anti-ship and medium- and long-range anti-aircraft missiles. From these bases, ships of the maritime militia, coast guard and Chinese navy radiate across the entire claimed maritime area and are the cause of numerous incidents at sea with fishing vessels and guards. coasts of other neighboring countries.
Land reclaimed from the sea most often requires the use of sand from the seabed, which is heavily loaded with humidity and salt. The process which allows this sand to dry and stabilize takes several years, before even considering construction work. However, the companies responsible for the reef development project in the Spratlys initiated the construction phase immediately after the filling without any transition period, so that the majority of the work was carried out within the space of only two years, between 2014 and 2016! As a result, the ground on which these facilities were built was unstable and some buildings were already unusable or severely damaged, including airstrips.
Furthermore, researcher Collin Koh, from the Technical University of Singapore (NTU-RSIS), highlights the environmental impact of this work, not only on the structures but also on the personnel deployed on the artificial islands. According to a set of Chinese scientific studies published between 2007 and 2022, it would seem that phenomena such as the power of the winds, the high rate of salinity as well as the humidity and the intensity of the sun are at risk to cause rapid deterioration of installations in general, including tanks and filters used for the treatment and storage of drinking water and fuel, and that the staff themselves are seriously affected by skin diseases and unusual breathing patterns. The impact on staff morale would be significant and would also correspond to certain phenomena linked to isolation observed on the Chinese base in Djibouti (which the author was able to visit in January 2020).
A questionable asset
We see these artificial islands, very useful in times of peace, both to secure the dilution of nuclear submarines based on the island of Hainan (province in southern China) and the training of naval aviation crews, or to protect China’s energy and economic interests, could well be more of a source of difficulty than anything else in a war situation.
In addition to the cost of their maintenance, which must be prohibitive, and the difficulty of supplying them, the Spratlys being located approximately 1000 km from the Chinese coast, the installations on these islands would be extremely vulnerable to missile strikes and quickly rendered inoperable, as much as, in the event of a conflict, China could not hope for support from any of its neighbors, who would demonstrate strict neutrality as committed to by the ASEAN charter.
Furthermore, and despite the flattering figures for Chinese naval construction, it is a safe bet that in the event of war, with vulnerable islands, a glaring lack of supply tankers and without real air cover, the 400 ships in the fleet, Chinese warplanes, and in particular the most valuable units such as aircraft carriers, would rather remain sheltered in their ports than deployed at sea where they would make easy targets for enemy aircraft, missiles and submarines.
This article was originally published in The Conversation on February 13, 2023, and translated from the original French. Benjamin Blandin is a Senior Contributing Researcher at the South China Sea NewsWire.