With Surface-to-Air Missiles, China Militarizes the South China Sea

Beijing’s provocative move to put sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles on little Woody Island breaks previous promises and invites retaliation.

Jason Lee / Reuters

China deployed its advanced HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea sometime in the first half of this month, Pentagon officials have revealed. Images of the missiles were released yesterday by various news organizations, and Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed the reports.

The Chinese deployment breaks a series of pledges Beijing made to the United States and the international community, one as recently as last month by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Secretary of State John Kerry during Kerry’s trip to Beijing.

The missile deployments will destabilize the already troubled South China Sea, and the situation there could deteriorate fast as various nations, including the United States, introduce military assets in response to Beijing’s rapid build-up.

The HQ-9, which resembles the advanced Russian S-300 system, has a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles).

China has been in physical possession of Woody Island since 1956. Both Vietnam and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the island, the largest in the Paracel chain, in the northern portion of the South China Sea.

China’s Paracel claims are just a subset of its assertion of sovereignty over almost all islands, reefs, shoals, and rocks in the South China Sea. With its infamous “nine-dash line,” markings on official maps, Beijing appears to maintain a claim to more than 80 percent of that body of water.

Its expansive claims overlap those of Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, and it has yet to unambiguously renounce sovereignty to the Natuna Islands, generally considered part of Indonesia.

Beijing’s claims, which have yet to be clarified, are clearly inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it has ratified. These claims also infringe on what is universally recognized, except by China, as international water and airspace.

Beijing in the last two years has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres from the South China Sea over and around seven reefs. There are three runways on three of the new islands.

The reclamations have mostly been in the Spratly chain, located near the Paracels. This “Great Wall of Sand,” as it is now known, has attracted criticism from South China Sea claimants and Washington, which has no territorial claims there. China has also added land to Woody Island.

The concern is that Beijing will turn its enlarged features in the South China Sea into military bases. China denies any such intent. “We will deploy necessary national defense facilities on the islands,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei on Tuesday. “It is an exercise of self-preservation and defense, a right granted by international law to sovereign states. It does not impede freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that all countries are entitled to under international law.”

Despite what Hong said, China last year attempted to impose no-go zones in international airspace around its reclaimed features. On May 20, for instance, it warned a U.S. Navy P-8A reconnaissance plane to stay away from its “military alert zone” near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. There is no basis in international law for the declaration of such an area.

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There is concern that China will enlarge its small self-declared zones into an air-defense identification zone over the entire South China Sea. In November 2013, China declared such a zone over the East China Sea. China’s East China Sea zone, implemented largely without consultation of other nations, included Japan’s sovereign airspace and closely abutted South Korea’s.

There is little sign that China’s introduction of missiles into the South China Sea will stop at Woody. Recently, Chinese admirals have met little resistance from civilian leaders and have had first call on the central government’s resources. And even with the crumbling economy, the pace of aggressive moves could quicken as they see a closing window of opportunity.

In any event, Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center foresees the introduction on South China Sea islands of 400-kilometer-range YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missiles and the 1,400-kilometer-range DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles.

The militarization of the islands affects core American interests. For more than two centuries, the U.S. has defended the rights of all nations to sail international waters and, more recently, to fly through international airspace. Each year $5.3 trillion of commerce passes on and over the South China Sea.

“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday while American defense officials continued to call on all nations to stop reclamations, construction, and militarization of the South China Sea.

If Beijing is successful in closing off international airspace, other nations will undoubtedly follow suit and grab parts of international waters and airspace elsewhere. The world will look very different if they succeed.

So this is, in short, a contest of whose vision will govern our era, America’s open one or China’s closed system.

Beijing, by introducing missiles on Woody Island, looks like it wants to intimidate the United States so that it will not protect the global commons. Neither side can back down, and there can be only one winner from this contest, which is a struggle to define Asia’s architecture—and the international system—for decades to come.