TAIPEI — Missing from discussions at last week's US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) was Taiwan's significance in China's land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, said defense analysts.
Held annually since 2009, the S&ED is a high-level government meeting set alternatively in each other's capital.
The Taiwan invasion scenario drives all Chinese military planning, force modernization, exercises and training, and this includes the recent land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, said Ian Easton, a China defense specialist at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) views the militarization of these islands as creating an outer defensive perimeter to extend its precision strike battle networks, Easton said. In the event of a Taiwan crisis, there is a "high probability that the US would steam at least two aircraft carrier groups to the Philippine Sea to bolster Taiwan's defense."
Since 9/11, the US has had at least one carrier group available for the mission in either the Arabian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, thus forcing the group to pass through the South China Sea to reach the area.
There are now high expectations China will establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as it did in the East China Sea in November 2013, as part of an anti-access/area denial strategy in the South China Sea, said Andrew Erickson, a China defense specialist at the US Naval War College. Erickson points to possible engineering efforts to lengthen the 1,300 meter runway on Fiery Cross in the Spratly Islands to 3,110 meters, allowing for the safe forward deployment of its J-11 (Su-27) fighter aircraft.
However, Chinese sources still insist the reclamation effort is largely for civilian and non-military purposes, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, fishery safety, ocean preservation and scientific research, said Wang Dong, deputy executive director, Institute on China-U.S. People to People Exchange, Peking University.
"I think China is being honest by acknowledging that there will be defensive military values of the facilities but they are mainly for civilian purpose," he said. China's sovereignty claims are based on history and reality, and China does not have to use land reclamation to reinforce its claims, he said.
Fiery Cross is one of seven features in the Spratly Islands involved in China's land reclamation efforts, recently dubbed the "Great Wall of Sand" and "Sand Castles" by US Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris. Others include Subi Reef, Paracels and Mischief Reef as possible future sites for Chinese fighter bases, Erickson said, and Chinese planners might well envision a division of labor among the artificial islands.
"Given its airfield, control tower and radars, Fiery Cross Reef may serve as a hub of sorts."
These facilities will no doubt provide China with radar coverage, signal intelligence and aerial coverage of the South China Sea, said retired US Marine Corp Lt. Gen. Wallace "Chip" Gregson, former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs under President Barack Obama.
Easton agrees. The Chinese will establish a "robust network of intelligence gathering posts on these massive man-made islands." These facilities will enable precision strikes from aircraft operating on the islands, from submarines resupplying there and from on-island cruise missile sites.
Easton and Gregson concur the artificial islands would not survive long in a war with the US, and this is why Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, Nanjing University, believes US claims the reclamation program is a military effort should be dismissed.
"If the islands are militarized they are sitting ducks to the US military, so island reclamation means nothing, changes nothing."
Zhu believes the US is paranoid and "overplaying" reclamation. He said the US should not see it as a "creeping provocation or challenge to their authority."
China is not trying to force the US military out of the region nor does China see the US as in decline and vulnerable. China is a rising power, but still very premature, and this has made the US anxious. "It is all a cliché that the US is in decline and China is the rising replacement for the US in the region. These are conspiracy theories."
Zhu warns that if the US sends warships to Chinese territorial waters, this will only raise tensions unnecessarily. "Beijing should not overreact either, but the placement of US warships in these waters demands a response. It is an unaffordable ruse on the US part."
PLA Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director general of the Strategic Studies Department, National Defense University, complained that most Americans do not know the simple basics of the South China Sea controversy, such as the origins of the dispute, where the South China Sea is located and who the players are.
"Why didn't the US say anything when other countries expanded their islands?"
Zhu was referring in part to current expansion projects on Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Abu), which include lengthening the runway to accommodate larger aircraft (currently only C-130s can resupply the island), and the construction of a dock capable of handling 3,000-ton vessels, ostensibly for Taiwan's new coast guard cutters.
The facilities on Taiping and its strategic location could tempt China, Easton said.
"Bear in mind that the Chinese islands being created surround Taiping on three sides," he said.
Taiwan is basically paying for a new runway and docking facility that the Chinese could exploit when the time is right. A Taiwan military official confirmed that Taiping is lightly defended with coast guard personnel trained by the Taiwan marine corps. The unit is outfitted with only machine guns and 120mm mortars, he said.
Gregson cautions that the US must begin to calculate how quickly things are changing in the region and how China is achieving de facto, if not de jure, sovereignty over the South China Sea.
"In 2010, China claimed that the South China Sea was not a core interest, now it certainly is, with Chinese statements in the recent S&ED that warn us to 'respect their core interests' in light of their recent reclamation efforts so that 'the two countries can keep bilateral relations on the right track.'"