Why China Wants the Spratlys

The islands could help Beijing secure the Western Pacific without actually fighting for it.

By: Phillip Orchard

For several months, China has been relentlessly asserting its control over disputed parts of the South China Sea. 

Hundreds of vessels in the Chinese maritime militia – lightly armed fishing fleets that don't so much fish as serve as foot soldiers for the Chinese navy – have been squatting around various reefs in the disputed Spratly archipelago near Philippine and Vietnamese controlled areas. 

The Chinese coast guard, meanwhile, has apparently been blocking and harassing Philippine patrols around Scarborough Shoal, a flashpoint reef farther north. 

The United States reportedly warned China in 2015 that turning Scarborough into another artificial island was a red line.

The show of force illustrates how the seven artificial island bases that China has built in the Spratlys since 2013 can be put to good use in scenarios short of war. 

The surveillance, communications and logistics capabilities they house make it easier than ever for legions of Chinese vessels to occupy disputed areas in perpetuity, swiftly overwhelm interlopers, and assert de facto control over the waters and marine resources claimed by others. 

But in an actual, prolonged conflict with the U.S. and its allies, the tactical value of the Spratlys would rapidly diminish. 

And if China's “salami-slicing” campaign pushes the Philippines, in particular, to throw in fully with the U.S., China's biggest strategic challenge – the threat of a U.S.-led blockade – will become an order of magnitude more difficult to solve.

In other words, China is playing a risky game. But it’s worth it, evidently, given the role Beijing thinks the islands could play in the early days of a major conflict. 

More important is the role they could play in cementing Chinese dominance of the Western Pacific without fighting at all.

Missile Fodder or More?

China has been finding ways to assert its claims over disputed reefs across the South China Sea for decades, particularly around the Paracels in the northwestern part of the sea, where China fought a pair of brief engagements with Vietnam and today has more than 20 military outposts. 

But it took things to another level beginning around 2013 when dredgers started showing up at a handful of reefs in the Spratlys, located in southeastern waters off the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. 

By 2016, China had transformed seven partially- or fully-submerged features into artificial islands, creating some 3,200 acres of new land. 

Today, these are full-fledged military bases, featuring lengthy runways, deepwater ports, barracks, underground ammunition stores, and a vast array of radar and communications technologies.

And yet, over the course of a long kinetic conflict between China and the U.S., the value of China's bases in the Spratlys would be negligible. Indeed, there's a good chance the bases wouldn’t still be there at all.

There are two main problems that limit their value in a hot war. 

One, they’re not located particularly close to the chokepoints that the U.S. and its allies would try to control in order to close off vital Chinese sea lanes. 

Those are located in the Bashi Channel and Miyako and Tokara straits in the East China Sea and, to the south, the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits. 

Though China could use the Spratlys to threaten naval movements within the South China Sea itself, control of these waters is unlikely to be the main focus of the conflict. 

The ability to move forces from and through the Spratlys to break a blockade would be only marginally more advantageous than moving them from the Chinese mainland.

Second, and more fundamentally, the bases would be sitting ducks for enemy missiles. 

Long before major operations moved to the South China Sea – a stage where, theoretically, the bases could aid Chinese carrier operations, augment Chinese cyber and electronic warfare offensives, enhance China's edge in battlespace awareness, and/or facilitate asymmetric swarm attacks – their runways, communications and surveillance infrastructure would likely be rendered unusable. 

Whatever survived would be extraordinarily difficult to resupply. (There are also major questions about the islands' ability to withstand major environmental degradation, though it seems unwise to bet against China's engineering savvy and willpower.)

Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs are not, in other words, the Spratly equivalents of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. 

There would be no brutal island-hopping campaign where control of the islands was a vital objective. They'd simply need to be neutralized. 

This could be done from a distance, no bloody amphibious operations required.

But focusing on their (lack of) value in the latter stages of a major conflict would be misguided. 

A lot would have to go wrong for Chinese forces for things to even get to that point. Rather, in an all-out war with the U.S. and its allies, the main value of the Spratlys would come into play in the very initial stages.

At the most basic level, they would give the U.S. seven more targets to deal with sooner or later. 

This could matter a lot, depending on how much the U.S. succeeds in its current efforts to find places to deploy land-based missiles across the first island chain. 

The U.S. has few such options right now. 

It would have to rely on longer-range (and thus less precise) missiles fired from Guam and other positions farther afield, on the limited arsenals of allies willing to join the fight (which cannot be guaranteed), and on whatever munitions U.S. warships can carry, which is of course limited. 

So, at worst, the Spratly bases are useful missile sponges.  

At best, they dramatically expand the range of Chinese missiles and air power. 

They give China an ability to try to flood contested spaces with sheer numbers, overwhelming the relatively small number of U.S. or allied assets that would be available in the early days of a conflict, with everything from fishing boats and coast guard vessels to swarms of unmanned aerial and maritime vehicles to, of course, actual warships and fighter jets. 

Most important, they give China tremendous capacity to dominate the information domain, with the potential to effectively blind or even cripple U.S. assets if caught unaware.


 Each of these elements would be invaluable in helping China maintain the element of surprise, gain the initiative from the outset of a conflict, and put the U.S. back on its heels. 

Even if the bases don't last long after that, the tactical advantages of being able to set the terms in a conflict from the first shot can be decisive.

Winning Without Fighting

The main reasons for China's commandeering of the Spratlys have little to do with worst-case scenario war-planning, though. 

Realistically, war with the U.S. is still only a remote possibility, even if the apocalyptic risks of one are such that both sides have to prepare as if it may be inevitable. 

There’s a reason there hasn't been a great power war since the 1940s. 

The damage from one today could be even more catastrophic.

Some of China's objectives in the Spratlys, then, are much more straightforward. Shipping to and from China through the South China Sea is so vital to the Chinese economy that any threat of prolonged disruption could be existential to the Communist Party’s hold on power. 

It makes perfect sense for Beijing to want to have coast guard bases as close as possible to ward off potential threats before they become a reality. 

There are also basic material gains at stake. 

For example, fishing stocks in Chinese waters have been deteriorating at an alarming rate, and China has a lot of mouths to feed. 

Whether China's apparent determination to dictate who can fish and where is motivated more by distrust of its neighbors’ ability to prevent overfishing, or simply by the desire to grab what it can for itself, is a major driver of Chinese policy.

Even so, China can't ignore a potential conflict with the U.S. altogether. 

And it's making a big bet that dominating the Spratlys will ultimately help it prevail not only in the South China Sea but in the broader Western Pacific as well.

Put simply, China needs the Philippines on its side to truly deal with the threat of a U.S. and allied blockade on its access to the Western Pacific. 

So China has been employing a carrot-and-stick strategy to win Manila over, pairing military pressure with hefty amounts of aid and investment. 

In truth, it's always been more of a “bitter pill” strategy, using aid and investment to make it somewhat easier for Manila to swallow the reality that it doesn't exactly have a lot of options in the matter. 

China has made it clear that it's not about to back off, and, in doing so, has deepened suspicions in Manila that the U.S. isn't about to risk war with China in defense of Philippine material or sovereign interests. 

Eventually, China believes, Manila will conclude that its best long-term option is to flip into the Chinese camp. 

And in the meantime, Beijing can use its leverage to at least weaken the U.S.-Philippine alliance and discourage Manila from, for example, implementing a key 2014 agreement with the U.S. giving it rotational access to several Philippine bases. 

On these fronts, the strategy has been pretty successful.

Still, antagonizing the Philippines at a time when the U.S. is shedding distractions elsewhere in the world and getting serious about stitching together a robust alliance structure in East Asia is a risky bet, to say the least. 

The Duterte administration, which has bent over backward to stay on friendly terms with China, appears to be reaching something of a breaking point, with Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin Jr. lashing out at Beijing in a manner typically reserved for those on the president's list of enemies (drug dealers, Barack Obama, the pope, et al.). 

It's not unreasonable to wonder, then, if China is at risk of forcing Manila to go all-in on its alliance with the U.S. and greenlight, say, the reestablishment of U.S. bases throughout the country. 

This would be a monumental strategic setback.

But China pushed its chips in long ago. 

The Spratlys are too valuable in too many ways to back off now. 

Beijing is done biding time and hiding its capabilities. 

Under Xi Jinping, the strategic calculation is starting to look a whole lot like action for action's sake.

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