Asia Reacts to China's South China Sea Airstrip

Published Nov 29, 2014 12:11 AM by The Maritime Executive

Op-Ed by Elliot Brennan

In what was the first ever port call between the countries, two Vietnamese frigates visited the Philippines on Tuesday. An unnamed Filipino naval officer said the two countries would hold peaceful joint patrols and operations in the Spratlys.

But the timing of the maiden port call was clear. It coincides with the first anniversary of China's declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Ever since, Southeast Asian states have worried about Beijing's intentions for its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The year seems to have only drawn us closer to a major incident, miscalculation or serious conflict in the South China Sea.

Yet there is little unity from the ASEAN bloc, despite much discussion. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in May managed a joint communiqué expressing 'serious concerns' (the adjective was added at Vietnam's insistence and only after much debate). The November ASEAN Summit statement managed to declare that 'we remain concerned', with a further affirmation of 'the importance of maintaining peace and stability' including the 'freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea'. A leaked pre-Summit draft document cited progress on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, but with no firm agreement on the decade-long process of negotiation. 

In the absence of ASEAN unity, Southeast Asian states continue to go it alone.  

In March, the Philippines submitted a 4000-page argument of its claim to an arbitration tribunal at The Hague. Manila also announced this month its intention to spend $2 billion on defence procurement by 2017. Meanwhile, last week in Beijing at the newly elevated track 1.5 Xiangshan Forum (significant for the future of South China Sea discussions as it is built on an 'Asia for Asians' policy, jettisoning the US from the debate), the Philippines spoke strongly on averting conflict and building trust. 

Vietnam has also taken a harder line. In May, China's state-owned oil company CNOOC moved its massive deep-water rig into Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone. Boats were rammed, some sank, and anti-China nationalist protests engulfed Vietnam. Then, as abruptly as it began, it stopped, and senior officials from both countries were shaking hands and agreeing on new cooperation. In ending its oil rig deployment at that crucial moment, Beijing may have avoided Vietnam 'breaking out of China's orbit'. But Vietnam's historical distrust of its northern neighbour has all but been reaffirmed. 

In September and October, Vietnam started broadening its friendship base. It swung closer to the US, which partially lifted the arms embargo. And in what seemed like a reply to the rig incident, President Dung met with Prime Minister Modi in India and signed a host of deals including one that offered India two oil exploration blocks in its EEZ in the South China Sea. In effect, this deal brought India directly into the territorial disputes on the side of Vietnam's claim.

All this was escalated by Beijing's construction in the Spratly Islands. Since August, China has dredged the seabed, spewing out land from the seafloor at Fiery Cross Reef. The reclamation of a 3km stretch of land would allow Beijing to build a sizeable airstrip. Despite other reclamations at Johnston South Reef, Gaven Reef, and Cuateron Reef since 2013, satellite imagery suggests this is by far the largest operation, and the only reclamation capable of accommodating an airstrip.

Other Spratly Island claimants (Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam) have airfields of varying sizes in the disputed territories. China does not, though its Hainan Island base and modernised navy is highly capable of power projection.

The Philippines has officially protested the Fiery Cross Reef reclamation. Described by some as an 'unsinkable aircraft carrier', an airbase on the island would allow for a South China Sea ADIZ, a concern that has been increasingly talked about since November last year. It is a move that could push ASEAN states toward greater unity, so perhaps to quiet regional fears, Beijing bought $20 billion in development loans to the ASEAN Summit (much of it offered to Myanmar and Cambodia) and has gathered all but Indonesia into its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Southeast Asian states, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, will continue to regard the 'big guy' of Asia as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Much of this perception is due to actions in the South China Sea. An airstrip could be a rallying point for unity against Beijing, an ADIZ would surely be one.

Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy's Asia Program in Sweden. He is a Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (U.S.) and a Contributing Analyst at the crowdsourcing consultancy Wikistrat (U.S.).

This article first appeared in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog.