VietNamNet Bridge – In theory, the positions controlled illegally by China in Truong Sa (Spratly Islands) in particular and the entire East Sea in general will help strengthen its ability to control the sea lanes and rapidly deploy armed forces.Control of strategic points
China began massively upgrading and expanding reefs in Truong Sa in 2014. This process can be interpreted in a variety of angles. One of them is to create a springboard in the overall strategy of the Chinese navy, with the basic goal of “preventing intrusion and access” (A2/AD).
A2/AD, expressed in a simple way, is pushing the military presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific from China as far as possible, in which the East Sea has the key position.
With this strategy, China is trying to ensure its control primarily in the first island chain (from southern Japan, through Taiwan and swallowing the East Sea), and then extending to the second chain of islands (from central Japan, through Guam and down to the east coast of Indonesia).
Alexander Vuving, a scholar at the Center for Asia-Pacific Security Studies in Hawaii said, with the “strategy of artificial islands,” the ultimate goal that Beijing is aiming at is to reshape the geopolitical position in favor of its dominance. The concept was introduced in an article by this author as “controlling strategic points”, which includes three basic conditions.
The first is to avoid armed conflict; conflict can occur, but only when there are favorable conditions. The second is to control as many as the strategic locations in the East Sea; otherwise, control them quietly and avoid conflict. Third, turning the strategic points into controlled points that are strong enough to control the entire area (logistic bases or forward bases).
Due to the big gap in military power with the US, Chinese will avoid direct conflict with this country, as well as avoid military confrontation with small countries around. Therefore, the strategy of “salami slice” and “small stick” are given priority for the use of fishing boats or paramilitary law enforcement forces to reduce the risk of conflict.
It can be seen that the dominant perspective of Vuving – controlling strategic points – has similarities with Alfred Thayer Mahan, who said that geography will play a vital role in any naval strategy. Mahan also stressed “geography as a foundation for strategy.”
The objective of maritime and sea control
In the East Sea, the key lies in China’s selection of the important points to occupy and then expand the value in geostrategic terms. The illegal seizure of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) in 1974 helps China in control of the northern part of the East Sea. In Truong Sa, China is illegally holding Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Subi Reef and most recently Mischief Reef and Scarborough Reef. According to Vuving, on the map the reefs of Fiery Cross, Mischief, Scarborough and Woody Island (Hoang Sa) form a quadrangle with a radius of 250 nautical miles, enough to completely control the East Sea which is considered the “throat of the international shipping lanes.”
According to the analysis of Vuving, to become the lord over the East Sea, China needs to develop the islands into a solid foundation which can provide logistics for fishing boats, marine surveillance ships, submarines and aircraft to dominate the skies and waters of this region, as well as some lands to establish the wide economic and security zones.
For example, Woody Island, the largest island in the Paracels, from an uninhabited sandy beach, now has 1,000 people. The island has a runway with a length of 2.7 km to serve the most modern fighters of China, as well as a deep-water port capable of receiving vessels of 5,000 tons. This can be regarded as China’s largest outpost in the East Sea today.
The construction activities are taking place in almost all reefs that Beijing occupies, but the impact is probably the most powerful in Fiery Cross. Currently, the area of Fiery Cross is twice of Ba Binh (the largest island in the Spratlys before), and in the future it will have the military capability almost equivalent to Woody Island.
Militarily, these islands are the outpost positions consistent with A2/AD. According to the Report of the Committee for Review of US-China Security and Economic Cooperation, most of the existing aircraft of China cannot afford long-term operation in the southern East Sea. This area is about 600 nautical miles away from the base in Hainan, and more than 400 nautical miles from Woody Island.
Before the expansion projects are completed, the Chinese Air Force has to use tankers. However, their tanker aircraft are unable to support large-scale campaigns at a far distance. Therefore, the artificial island strategy will firstly be a springboard for this purpose.
More importantly, in the opinion of some defense experts, these projects will support effectively the task C4ISR (command and control operations, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) of China over the adjacent islands and waters. Theoretically, the positions controlled illegally by China in Truong Sa in particular and the entire East Sea in general will help strengthen this country’s ability to control the sea lanes, sea surveillance and rapidly deploy the armed forces. China’s Navy will be able to track the movement of the civilian and military ships across the sea through C4ISR. The extensive forward and logistics base will be the basis for the deployment of warships, patrol boats and modern planes.
According to Professor Robert Beckman (S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies – Nanyang Technological University) infrastructure improvements to expand reefs and construction of artificial islands cannot help China change the current legal status of the reefs.
Firstly, according to Professor Beckman, if an island is in a state of sovereignty dispute, the country that occupies the island is unable to enhance its claims by infrastructure improvement or construction and installation of equipment on the island.
Secondly, by definition that “island” is the land area “naturally formed” and surrounded by the sea and located on the water at high tide, China cannot turn reefs into islands with full legal regulation (including the territorial waters, contiguous, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf). The geological structure is raised above the water at high tide due to infrastructure improvements only considered an “artificial island”. According to Article 60 of UNCLOS, the artificial islands are not entitled to legal status for the surrounding waters, and they can only establish safe areas not greater than 500 meters. So infrastructure improvements cannot change the legal status of the rocks, though they are raised above the high tide.
Nguyen The Phuong
Đăng ký: VietNam News