On Friday, the Pentagon released a report documenting a rapid Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea, with an emphasis on China’s construction of artificial island fortresses. China responded on Saturday, expressing “strong dissatisfaction” with the Pentagon report.
CNN reports the Pentagon found China adding 3,200 acres to seven island sites under its control in the South China Sea, building them up to include artificial harbors for large ships and creating three aircraft runways at least 9,800 feet long. These observations were documented with satellite photographs.
The Wall Street Journal notes that the 3,200-acre total appears to cover just the Spratly Islands. China claims many other areas in the South China Sea besides the Spratlys, but the Pentagon report evidently did not offer an estimate of how much land reclamation has been performed in those areas. In contrast, nations other than China have recovered about 50 acres of land in the Spratlys over the same period of time.
The Pentagon also noted significant quality and quantity improvements in China’s military hardware, including “high-performance aircraft, integrated air defense networks, information operations capabilities and amphibious and airborne assault units,” along with upgrades to its ballistic missiles, some of which are now capable of hitting the U.S. military bases on Guam.
The Pentagon characterized China’s strategy as “coercive tactics short of armed conflict,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
“China often uses a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed areas and avoid escalation to military conflict. China has also used punitive trade policies as instruments of coercion during past tensions and could do so in future disputes.” said the report.
The Journal notes that China’s 2015 military spending was over $180 billion, which was at least $40 billion more than its official defense budget specified. Even though China’s economy hasn’t been doing very well, the Pentagon thought it would be able to sustain 9.8 percent annual military spending increases for the foreseeable future.
The Pentagon predicted that “additional substantial infrastructure, including communications and surveillance systems” would be built on China’s largest holdings in the Spratly Islands over the coming year.
The Wall Street Journal highlights a passage in the report that ominously, but vaguely, warns China’s military buildup has “eroded or negated many of Taiwan’s historical advantages.”
The Pentagon wants Taiwan to increase its own military spending, with an eye toward “asymmetric capabilities” that would make a Chinese assault on the island too expensive for Beijing to contemplate.
“China continues to focus on preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, but additional missions such as contingencies in the East and South China seas and on the Korea Peninsula are increasingly important to the [People’s Liberation Army],” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham M. Denmark, quoted in DoD’s press release on the China Military Power report.
“China’s leadership demonstrated a willingness to tolerate higher levels of tension in pursuit of its maritime sovereignty claims,” Denmark said of Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. “China’s strategy is to secure its objectives without jeopardizing the regional peace that has enabled its military and economic development, which in turn has maintained the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power.”
Outside the South China Sea region, Denmark cited China’s military outpost in Djibouti as a sign of Beijing’s growing interest in power projection. He also observed that the Chinese Communist Party has been implementing structural reforms to increase its control over the military, which seems like the sort of thing China would do if it planned to rely on active military strength more heavily in the near future.
On a positive note, Demnark saluted progress with the People’s Liberation Army in “developing the capacity to cooperate in delivery of international public goods, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-piracy, peacekeeping operations, search and rescue, and military medicine.”
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun expressed “strong dissatisfaction” and “firm opposition” to the Pentagon report on Saturday.
“China follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. China’s deepening military reforms and its strengthening of weapons and equipment building are aimed at maintaining sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and guaranteeing China’s peaceful development,” said Yang, as quoted by the Associated Press.
China invariably accuses the United States of being the party that seeks to militarize the South China Sea and ratchet up tensions. Saturday’s statement from Yang was no exception, as he said it was United States that had been “frequently sending military aircraft and warships to the South China Sea to make a show of force.”
On the other hand, writing at The National Interest, Naval War College associate professor Andrew S. Erickson faults the Pentagon for not being hard enough on China, because it doesn’t mention “China’s Maritime Militia,” also known as the “Little Blue Men.”
Erickson chose the latter nickname as a play on the “Little Green Men” Russia sent into Crimea and Ukraine — mysterious paramilitary forces wearing irregular uniforms who prepared the battlespace for insurgency and occupation.
China, he argues, is doing the same thing with suspicious “merchant vessels” and “fishing boats,” which extend Chinese military surveillance across the South China Sea, and intimidate civilian ships from other nations away from reefs and islands Beijing wishes to control.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Denmark was asked about China’s “grey zone” operations at the Pentagon press event for its report. He replied that Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels sometimes act unprofessionally “in the vicinity of the military forces or fishing vessels of other countries in a way that’s designed to attempt to establish a degree of control around disputed features,” a tactic intended to “gradually demonstrate and assert claims that other countries dispute.”
Clearly the Pentagon is aware of the Little Blue Men problem, making it curious that the official report doesn’t discuss them at length. Erickson suggests Congress should “mandate that next year’s iteration include significant coverage of China’s Maritime Militia, as well as greatly-enhanced treatment of China’s Coast Guard.”