Hyderabad: Little mentioned in the mainstream media, the South China Sea is nevertheless central to the scale of Southeast Asia as well as Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific and the world. Indeed, this sea of approximately 3.5 million km2 is at the heart of the ‘Asian Mediterranean’, a vast economic lung and an absolutely crucial zone for the circulation of people and goods on the scale of Asia.
The South China Sea thus sees transit each year 30% of world trade ($5,000 billion) and 25% of the oil transported by sea, including 70% of the oil imported by China.
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 south-east, 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 Beijing, which has been seeking for several years to extend its influence there, in particular through the construction of artificial islands. But is this major effort by the People’s Republic really justified, in both economic and strategic terms?
Strangely, if the South China Sea extends from the south of the island of Taiwan to the border of the Java Sea, also bordering the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, it is in general the only portion of this sea claimed by China as well as by the authorities of Taiwan.
Apart from the island of Hainan, this immense space includes almost no emerged land. It is barely 13 km2 of land at high tide, including 200 islands and islets as well as a thousand maritime elements including rocks, atolls, coral reefs, shoals and sandbanks.
However, this confetti of territories is 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. Singapore also has a window to the South China Sea through its possession of Pedra Branca, but is not a party to the disputes.
Seventy-three incidents were counted in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2020 (a likely understated estimate). Incidents are regular between Chinese coast guard, maritime militia and navy vessels on the one hand and Vietnamese fishing and coast guard vessels on the other (almost 50% of the total) but also Filipinos (25%) and Malaysians (2%). The balance corresponds to confrontations between ships from the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Beyond the economic aspects, the Chinese authorities seek to secure the South China Sea as a strategic space free of American forces or bases.
Since the 1970s, China has thus gradually established real control, notably military, of the main groups of islands and, in particular, of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. In the first archipelago, which represents the bulk of the emerged lands, Beijing has total control over all the main islands and islets. In the second, mainly composed of coral reefs and atolls, not claimable within the meaning of the UN, control is looser but the Chinese army has, by far, the largest “islands” – even if they are actually artificial coral reefs.
This control is exercised by the massive polderization of coral reefs in order to make real air and naval bases from which the famous “maritime militia”, the powerful coast guard and the navy, which regularly organises naval exercises, are deployed.
It is also to and from these islands that the whole range of grey zone techniques can be observed used by the Chinese authorities to consolidate their claims through a succession of “accomplished facts”: creation of administrative entities, cruises and arrival of tourists by plane, archaeological research, scientific work, incitement to populate certain islands, without forgetting the massive propaganda in the media, to name a few.
As part of these permanent installations, China occupies about 20 islands in the Paracel archipelago, six of which have a port, four of a set of antennas, radars and radomes and only one, Woody Island, a three-km airstrip allowing the landing of all types of aircraft.
In the Spratly archipelago, which includes the majority of the islands, islets, rocks and other maritime elements, China controls “only” seven “islands” but these represent the bulk of the emerged land of the whole. While four of them, Cuarteron Reef, Gavin Reef, Johnson Reef and Hughes Reef, are relatively small in size and primarily include radar and radome type sensors, the “islands” of Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, actually polderised atolls, are today real air and naval bases.
These bases each have a three-kilometre-long runway from which fighter, maritime patrol or anti-submarine warfare aircraft can take off. There is not just a deep water port, barracks and warehouses, but also complete sets of maritime and air radars as well as batteries of anti-ship “carrier killer” missiles and medium and long-range anti-aircraft missiles. From these bases, Maritime Militia, Coast Guard and Chinese Navy vessels radiate throughout the claimed maritime area and are the source of numerous incidents at sea with fishing vessels and coasts guards of other riparian countries.
Land reclaimed from the sea most often requires the use of sand from the seabed, which is heavily loaded with humidity and salt. However, the process that allows this sand to dry and stabilise takes several years, before even considering the construction work.
However, the contractors responsible for the construction of the reefs in the Spratleys initiated the construction phase immediately after the infilling without any transition period, so the bulk of the work was carried out in 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 would already be unusable or severely damaged, including the airstrips.
In addition, researcher Collin Koh, from the Technical University of Singapore, underlines 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 indeed 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 the origin of a rapid deterioration of the installations in general, including cisterns and filters used for the treatment and storage of drinking water as fuel, and that the personnel themselves are seriously affected by unusual skin and respiratory diseases. The impact on staff morale would be significant and would also correspond to certain phenomena linked to isolation observed at the Chinese base in Djibouti (which the author was able to visit in January 2020).
A Questionable Asset
As we can see, these artificial islands are very useful in times of peace, both to secure the dilution of nuclear submarines based on the island of Hainan (a province in southern China) and the training of naval aviation crews or to protect China’s energy and economic interests. But they may well be more a source of difficulty than anything else in a situation of war.
In addition to the cost of their maintenance, which must be prohibitive, and the difficulty of supplying them, the Spratleys, being located approximately 1,000 km from the Chinese coast, the installations on these islands would be extremely vulnerable to missile strikes in the event of a conflict. China could not hope for support from any of its neighbours, who would demonstrate strict neutrality as committed to by the Asean charter.
Furthermore, and despite the flattering figures for Chinese shipbuilding, it’s a safe bet that in the event of war, with vulnerable islands, a crying lack of supply tankers and no real air cover, the 400 ships of the fleet of Chinese warfare, 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.