Publication: The Military Balance 2016
09 February 2016
In 2015, the military dimension of the Asia-Pacific’s international politics was as prominent as ever, with China adopting an increasingly assertive posture in relation to its territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, the United States maintaining its ‘rebalance’ towards the region, tensions continuing on the Korean Peninsula and many regional states expanding their capability developments.
South China Sea
Tensions significantly escalated during 2015 over China’s accelerating construction on features it occupied in the South China Sea. In the Spratly Islands, China expanded the existing Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South, Mischief and Subi reefs into islands, while also enlarging Woody Island in the Paracels group to the north. There was an evident military aspect to these activities. Beijing established a 3km-long runway capable of supporting military air operations on Fiery Cross Reef; by July 2015, an apron and taxiway had been added and helipads, satellite-communications antennae and what resembled a radar tower were also visible in satellite imagery. Another airstrip was being built on Johnson South Reef, together with a port and surveillance towers. It was possible that a runway was being built on Subi Reef.
There was speculation that China’s new island airfields and radars would ultimately be used to enforce an air-defence identification zone over at least part of the South China Sea. Some analysts viewed the construction effort as part of a wider plan supporting long-term strategic purposes, notably protecting China’s sea lanes of communication as well as transit routes and, eventually, deployment areas for its missile submarines as it develops a credible second-strike nuclear deterrent. In May, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated that Washington opposed ‘any further militarization of disputed features’ and would ‘fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows’. Earlier in the month, it was reported that Carter had asked the US Department of Defense (DoD) to consider expanding US Navy ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the South China Sea, to challenge assertions of sovereignty that were not recognised in international law. US aircraft were already challenging China’s attempts to control airspace over the features that it had recently enlarged and militarised.