China’s newest military garrison in the contentious South China Sea is largely a political show and won’t significantly raise the threat of armed confrontation in the region. Which is not saying much, since that threat is already darned high and is certain to get worse.
Chinese authorities announced this week that they would station troops on Yongxing Island, a speck of land about 220 miles (350 km) southeast of Hainan Island. China has designated Yongxing as the capital of a newly created administrative region called Sansha. It is intended to extend Chinese administrative control over the resource-rich Paracel, Spratly and Macclesfield Bank island groups. Those islands — known in China as Xisha, Nansha and Zongsha, respectively — are variously claimed by China and five neighboring countries and have been the source of increasing confrontations in the region.
The official Xinhua news agency said the Sansha military garrison will be responsible for guarding Yongxing, conducting disaster-relief and rescue operations, and “carrying out military missions.” No details on troop levels or what that last bit might include.
Yongxing, also called Woody Island, measures less than one square mile (2.6 sq km). It has a small airfield and artificial harbor and a permanent population of about 1,100. Virtually all food, water and supplies must be taken in by ship or plane.
Retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt, a former carrier-battle-group commander with experience in the South China Sea, says establishing a garrison on the island won’t alter the military balance or signal imminent hostilities. Any significant military operations in the region, he says, would be mounted from Hainan, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has major air, land and sea bases, rather than from tiny, salt-soaked Yongxing.
“Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag — to say, ‘We are serious,’” says McDevitt, a former director of East Asia Policy at the Department of Defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses near Washington, D.C.
Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime-security specialist at Tokyo’s Japan Institute of International Affairs, says China already effectively controls the Paracels through its naval forces and scattered island outposts. Even if troops on Yongxing were assigned surveillance equipment or even antiship defenses, he says, it would do little more than duplicate capabilities China already has nearby.
“They’re basically just sending a political message. I’m not sure what other role those troops could play,” says Kotani.
Whether it’s all part of a carefully synchronized strategy by Beijing or a messy improvisation by fractious government ministries remains unclear. In a report issued in April, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, attributed much of tension in the South China Sea to poor coordination among 11 different Chinese agencies that have responsibility for security or maritime affairs.
“Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters,” the report says. “Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international.”
Indeed, China’s State Council established the Sansha district in late June, apparently to retaliate for a law passed by Vietnam declaring the entire Paracels as their own. No mention was made of a military garrison until it was announced this week, in something of a surprise, by China’s Central Military Commission.
Regardless, the potential for trouble is real.
Philippine news media reported this week that China has begun building a military airstrip at a place called Subi Reef, in the Spratly Islands. That’s just 12 miles (20 km) from where the Philippines has its administrative headquarters for what it claims as its part of the Spratlys — altogether a collection of some 750 islets, atolls, reefs and sandbanks spread over some 175,000 sq. mi. (453,000 sq km). That’s about the size of California and Texas combined.
The Philippines says a flotilla of 10 Chinese fishing boats escorted by at least two PLA navy frigates and other maritime patrol boats have begun fishing — illegally, according to the Philippines — at the Subi Reef as well. Emotions are still running high in both countries after China forced the Philippines to back down last month from a confrontation at the Scarborough Shoal, and after China squelched an attempt earlier this month by the ASEAN alliance to fashion a formal code for resolving the territorial disputes.
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have said they won’t recognize China’s Sansha district.
The U.S. is trying hard to stay out of the territorial disputes. The U.S. says its sole concern is ensuring that sea lanes remain open and trade unimpeded. The Navy is in the process of shifting 60% of warships to the Asia-Pacific region — just to make sure.
Kotani says it’s all getting rather dicey.
“The tension in the South China Sea is increasing, and I think that will continue. No country has any reason to back off right now,” he says. “China is increasing its military posture in the South China Sea and the United States will continue its presence there as well. So there is always the possibility of an accidental clash that can easily escalate into a large-scale conflict.”
Maybe that’s the message of the garrison at Yongxing.