Less than 24 hours after President Obama called for ‘tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions’, the US this week confirmed China’s ‘apparent deployment’ of an advanced missile system on a disputed island in the region. We have not seen any indication that the move is permanent, nor is the deployment of military material to the island chain unprecedented. However, if accurate, the reports indicate China’s intention to continue its creeping militarisation of the maritime features it controls in the Paracel and Spratly island chains.
At this stage, information about the missile deployment is limited. On Tuesday 26 February, Fox News broadcast satellite images showing at least two HQ-9 mobile surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracels between 3 and 14 February. The Taiwanese government backed the Fox report, and despite initial denials China later confirmed the deployment of ‘weapons’ onto the island. Beijing later also blamed the US for the militarisation of the region through it air and naval patrols.
Although the motivation behind the reported deployment is unclear, the reports coincided with the conclusion of a US-ASEAN summit in California, during which the participating leaders called for a ‘peaceful resolution’ to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The timing may well reflect a growing desire in Beijing to exert diplomatic and military pressure on the US and regional states.
At a diplomatic level, unnamed officials cited by AFP say that Beijing is upping the pressure on regional states to avoid the creation of an ASEAN consensus on territorial disputes. ‘The message is ‘fall in line, or else’’, according to one Southeast Asian diplomat. If such pressure is sustained, it would suggest that it is seemingly becoming more difficult for regional states to avoid a zero-sum game in their relations with US and China.
This would severely undermine the already slim chance of ASEAN contributing to a resolution of territorial disputes, particularly with Laos serving as ASEAN chairman this year. Laos’ limited diplomatic capabilities and its deep ties to China means there is a credible risk that it will adopt a similar obstructionist position on maritime issues to that taken by Cambodia during its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012.
Militarily, we assess that the missile deployment, even on a temporary basis, is probably intended to serve as a deterrent to US freedom of navigation and overflight missions in the region, as well as to intimidate rival claimants. The missiles deployed on Woody Island have a range of 200km and an altitude ceiling of 27,000m (or almost 90,000ft), making them easily capable of targeting either military or civilian aircraft in the region. In response to the latest reports, the commander of the US Pacific Command ruled out any curtailment: ‘We will conduct more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations…We have no intention of stopping’.
As we have long assessed, such missions test the developing operational norms in South China Sea, bringing a risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations, escalation and possible conflict. The deployment of missile capability further increases the risks of such encounters. And with China’s development of maritime features in the Spratlys clearly intended to allow it to project its power in the region, further signs of militarisation, including similar deployments, are probable this year.