China has installed long-range, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles on three of its outposts in the South China Sea, according to reports. This move represents another step in the militarization of the disputed islands and-if confirmed-would be the first Chinese missile installation in the Spratly Islands. According to CNBC, those missiles could target aircrafts and ships within a radius of 295 nautical miles. This may increase the tension with those nations that have rival claims over the Spratly Islands, including Taiwan and Vietnam. On the one hand, this is not a surprising move, given that China has already put missiles on Woody Island, and also militarized other artificial islands in the Spratlys. China’s missile deployment, however, sends a message to other nations not to exercise their rights to the disputed Spratly Islands. The U.S. is concerned that the increasing Chinese presence in the South China Sea will threaten “freedom of navigation” and affect American strategic and economic interests.
According to Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, deploying missiles on the outposts would be important because “these would be the first missiles in the Spratlys, either surface to air, or anti-ship.” For him, those deployments come not as a surprise because China has already created such missile systems on Woody Island. This would be another step closer to the domination of the South China Sea, which is a key global trade route. “Before this, if you were one of the other claimants … you knew that China was monitoring your every move. Now you will know that you’re operating inside Chinese missile range. That’s a pretty strong, if implicit, threat,” Poling said. According to Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, “China’s peace-building activities in the Spratly Islands — which are China’s own territories, including the deployment of essential national defence facilities, are necessary to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security, as well as the natural rights enjoyed by sovereign states.”
China lays claim to more than 3 million square kilometres of the South China Sea, which is rich in oil and natural gas and is important for shipping lanes. However, there are many overlapping claims to sovereignty from Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. According to The Hague’s Court of Arbitration in 2016, China has no legal grounds to claim that territory. Washington‘s main concern is that China’s militarization of the disputed islands in the South China Sea threaten the “freedom of navigation” and undermine regional stability. In fact, the South China Sea is a very important sea route, with an estimated $3.4 trillion of trade passes annually – a third of all shipping. China’s key interest in the area is to push its defences beyond China’s coast and to secure key oil supply routes.
In February, the Trump administration introduced a new security strategy that emphasized limiting China’s rise and reinforcing the U.S. presence in the South China Sea. The U.S. has warned that China would face short and long-term consequences for its military build-up operations in the South China Sea. According to the Congressional Research Service and maritime experts, the Trump administration is intensifying the frequency of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. Beijing reaffirmed its right to build defensive facilities in those regions, however, Beijing did not confirm the reports that it has installed new missiles on its artificial islands. It seems that diplomacy has only had little effect up to this point. Even though a military conflict remains unthinkable, both the U.S. and China are engaging in a delicate play of gunboat diplomacy and deterrence.
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