China consolidates grip

The scale of construction at Subi Reef and China’s other bases is transforming the military balance in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Philippine Daily Inquirer.

China’s military build-up in the South China Sea means it will soon be able to challenge the United States at all levels, according to the US military.

The latest warning highlights the extraordinary scale of China’s construction of military bases on reclaimed islands and its determination to assert dominance in the disputed waters.

With world attention distracted by fears of conflict in Korea, Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian claimants have been reduced to watching and marvelling at the speed and ambition of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

Close-up photographs of China’s new bases in the Spratly Islands were recently obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, adding new detail to satellite pictures being monitored apprehensively in Washington and Southeast Asian capitals.

Prepared for war

The outgoing Commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris told Congress that he was alarmed by developments.

“China’s impressive military build-up could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain,” he said.

The United States must be prepared for war, he added, even while it took all steps to try to avoid conflict.

Much of the latest attention has focused on China’s vast new base at Fiery Cross Reef, a partially submerged feature on a far flung tropical atoll until just a few years ago.

Analysts believe that highly sophisticated communications facilities on the island identify it as the hub of China’s military network in the archipelago, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Bases on six other reclaimed reefs and shoals also feature runways capable of hosting long-range bombers, hangers, bunkers and missile systems.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which has been closely monitoring construction work, said the facilities at Fiery Reef were rapidly expanded last year.

Tenuous grasp

Two towers topped with domes are at the heart of communications systems that will be able to monitor the activities of the US navy and rival claimants across the South China Sea.

The US aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, is currently docked in Manila Bay after steaming through the South China Sea – although it did not pass within the claimed territorial waters of the Chinese bases.

However, military analysts say that recent “freedom of navigation” missions by US navy vessels are no substitute for a sustained strategy to counter Chinese expansion.

They warn that China has transformed military realities on the ground over the past two years, and will soon be in a position to directly challenge the might of the US navy in decisive areas.

Vietnam has been banking on closer strategic ties with the United States to bolster its tenuous grasp on lightly defended outposts in the Spratlys. A US aircraft carrier is due to dock in a Vietnamese port later this year for the first time since the Vietnam War.

However, the days of Washington’s unquestioned naval dominance across the western Pacific appear to be coming to an end.

Vietnam may have to look to its resources, and the vagaries of its highly nuanced relationship with China, if it has a chance of sustaining its precarious position in the South China Sea.