China completing militarization in South China Sea by deploying missiles to Spratlys: experts

By Viet Anh   May 4, 2018 | 11:49 pm PT
China completing militarization in South China Sea by deploying missiles to Spratlys: experts
An aerial view of Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, controlled by Vietnam and part of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Francis Malasig
China can create a corridor through the waters that will make it risky for foreign navies to pass, experts said.

China's reportedly deploying missiles in the Spratly Islands outposts could mean an act closer to declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone in the disputed waters and Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam should raise voices to protect their rights, experts said.

U.S. news network CNBC reported on Wednesday that China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea.

The report quoted unnamed sources as saying that according to U.S. intelligence assessments, the missiles were moved to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef within the past 30 days.

"If the story is correct, this is a significant step of China toward militarization of Spratly Islands," Euan Graham, Director of International Security Program at Lowy Institute, told VnExpress.

He said the missiles would be a stage before China launching combat aircraft later this year, and declaring an excercise restriction area.

"The range of China's cruise missiles is about 300 miles, so that it will extend the coverage of anti-ship capability across much of the Spratly Islands. China can then effectively create a corridor through the middle of the South China Sea that will make it risky for foreign navies to pass," Graham said.

He said that there is a small risk of conflict between China and other countries, the key point is China wants to shape behavior of country in peace time, by using the threat of force but not actually using force.

Robert McCoy, a retired U.S. Air Force officer with 14 years observing security in Asia, said that Beijing is beginning to deploy military assets and other resources to its artificial islands in the South China Sea, and it is going to defend those islands with some level of ground forces.

"Would China ever attack commercial shipping in the South China Sea? Perhaps not, but it might well harass them. My observation is that bullies, China certainly fits that definition, respect only force", Mr McCoy said.

Options for Vietnam

Graham said that ASEAN should give statetments in response to the report of China's missile deployment, if the act is confirmed.

ASEAN should speak up to support the legal rights and non-military status of these features in the South China Sea, he said. In the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), China and the bloc members agreed that parties should not militarize features.

"This is a key test for ASEAN, a big challenge to ASEAN. The association must be vocal in public to defend the position of DOC and the ongoing COC (Code of Conduct)," said Graham.

He encouraged Vietnam to boost ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors for stronger foothold in the defense. Vietnam holds sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the East Sea, its name for the South China Sea.

He singled out Indonesia as one partner that Vietnam should concentrate on, because if the bloc's giant is interested, ASEAN will be stronger.

Vietnam and Indonesia is settling disputes on maritime boundaries and the two should reach an agreement soon, as it will help pursuade Indonesia to be more supportive of Vietnam in multilateral settings, he said.

McCoy said ASEAN members should determine what are the most likely outcome of China's move, then discuss how to counter it. Members should set a realistic goal and identify the diplomatic and military steps necessary to achieve that goal, he said.

Vietnam also has other options, experts said.

Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that China's deployment in the Spratly Islands is likely going to be followed by the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

China’s militarization may not be reversed, but countries can seek to deter the giant from using its military for coercive purposes, she said.

"Vietnam should work more closely with the U.S., Australia, Japan and India," she said.

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