China Militarizes the South China Sea

Photographs posted on Chinese websites late last month suggest the People’s Liberation Army is now basing its J-11 fighters on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, a chain of islands near Vietnam and China in the middle portion of the South China Sea.

The PLA might not keep the advanced fighters there long—the salty air degrades sophisticated planes quickly—but the introduction of J-11s on that island will surely cause alarm in the contested region for many reasons. 

First, the PLA has recently stepped up the harassment of American reconnaissance planes along its coasts. Last year, for instance, a Chinese fighter intercepted a US Navy P-8 near Woody Island, drawing a protest from the Pentagon. And on September 15th, one of China’s jets intercepted a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and the Korean peninsula. The Chinese jet recklessly crossed the nose of the American plane, within 500 feet, at high speed. With J-11s on Woody, we can expect more incidents in the future, as these Chinese jets will be more than 200 miles farther south into the South China Sea than they would be from their current airfields on Hainan Island.

Second, Beijing might use the J-11s to exert its dominion over the South China Sea by declaring an “air defense identification zone” there, as it did over the East China Sea in November 2013, largely without consulting neighbors South Korea and Japan. 

The Chinese zone includes airspace over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing once acknowledged as Japanese but now claims as its own. The self-proclaimed zone also includes the airspace over Ieodo, a submerged rock off the coast of South Korea. Seoul has built a research station there on stilts, but Beijing takes the position that it, too, is part of China. 

In the South China Sea, such a zone would be even more contentious. China’s territorial claims overlap those of Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Moreover, China’s controversial official maps appear to claim about 85 percent of that body of water as Chinese. That apparent claim, which Beijing refuses to clarify, is inconsistent with both customary international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing ratified in 1996. So the introduction of the J-11s is a warning that China will back its expansive territorial ambitions by airpower. 

Third, the J-11 deployment puts Beijing’s ongoing charm campaign in an alarming context. In recent months, Beijing has sought to allay American suspicions about its activities in the Spratlys, an island chain in the southern portion of the South China Sea. There, it has reclaimed features from the sea—more than 2,900 acres since December 2013—and built them into sizable islands. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, has called them the “great wall of sand,” and in September, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited President Obama in Washington, he promised not to militarize the Spratly chain.He made no promises about the Paracels, and now we can guess why.

China has just moved planes south into the South China Sea, and there are few indications Beijing will stop this process of militarization.

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