TAIPEI — China appears to be constructing an airstrip and sea port on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, according to regional media reports, in a move that looks like the next step in its efforts to claim the entirety of a water area roughly the size of India.
The expansion is part of numerous reef reclamation efforts being made by China, said Guy Stitt, president of AMI International Naval Analysts & Advisors. “China continues its slow fortification of the claims within its 9-Dash Line,” which outlines China’s purported “indisputable sovereignty” of the South China Sea.
China has active expansion programs on Gaven Reef and Cuarteron Reef, and the placement of a port and airstrip on Fiery Cross or any of the others would “be used to counter a US presence in the Philippines,” said Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The US military must now face the very real possibility that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will use these islands to implement a new air defense identification zone similar to the one created in the East China Sea last November.
An airbase on Fiery Cross Reef would give China de facto military control over the South China Sea airspace since it would allow shorter-range tactical aircraft with a heavier weapons load to operate in the airspace, an advantage over having to send tactical aircraft from the mainland in event of a potential conflict, said Sam Tangredi, author of the new book, “Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies.”
The US Navy will not face off just against the PLA Navy, but against the PLA Air Force, which can operate shore-based aircraft against ships at sea, and against the Chinese Army, which operates China’s inventory of anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21D, said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College.
“If you can hold a stronger navy like the US Navy at bay with shore-based weaponry,” the 21st-century counterpart of fortress guns, “that liberates the PLA Navy fleet to venture outside the Western Pacific and China seas,” he said. “It also means the PLA doesn’t need to build a navy as big or powerful as the US Navy to accomplish what China’s leadership wants the PLA Navy to accomplish in East Asia.”
Tangredi said he does not believe that a sea port and air strip on Fiery Cross would be doable or even comparable to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, but “if you combine an airbase at Fiery Cross with a developed anchorage amongst other reefs, that makes for a more formidable naval base.”
Diego Garcia is an atoll, not a reef, with a sheltered lagoon and room enough to support a maritime prepositioning squadron, all of which Fiery Cross Reef lacks, he said.
The fear is that all the other claimants, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, will begin building fortifications on reefs, islets and rocks, said Andrew Erickson, a China naval specialist at the US Naval War College.
“Will we increasingly witness an arms race of augmentation as rival claimants fortify features under their respective control with structures, ships, and sand?” he asked.
Erickson questions what this will mean for the otherwise potentially moderating influence of existing norms and international agreements such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea if islets, reefs and rocks are substantially enhanced.
“What will it mean for South China Sea stability if additional military airstrips are built? My forecast: nothing good,” Erickson said.
China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past few years is significant as it “directly challenges America’s position as the primary maritime power in Asia and as the guardian of the old regional order,” said Hugh White, author of the new book, “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.”
White said those in Washington who assume China would not challenge the US in Asia “need to reconsider their assessment and think deeply about how to respond.”
He said the US should no longer assume China would back down from a US military counter-challenge. Those days are long past. The US needs a “more sophisticated diplomacy” that will “avoid escalating rivalry.”
“The underlying demand is that the United States needs to clarify its true interests in the Asia-Pacific and to define what elements of our Asia strategy are important to us and which we can live without,” Stitt said.
“I can’t help but think that America’s vacillation over our policy with Ukraine has served as an indicator to China to amplify their efforts in the South China Sea.” ■