In his statement at the White House in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a commitment not to militarise the artificial islands China built in the South China Sea. Observers wondered how China defined the term ‘militarisation’. And it is this lack of clarity helping to fuel speculation over Beijing’s strategic ambitions.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines militarisation as ‘equip or supply [a place] with soldiers and other military resources’ or to ‘give [something] a military character’. Strictly speaking, the South China Sea is being militarised by multiple parties through the very simple fact that military facilities and capabilities are being stationed on islands in the Spratlys.
In August 2016, Reuters reported that Vietnam placed mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations on some of the islands it occupies in the South China Sea.
While the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi denied this, its response referred to Vietnam’s inherent right of self-defence. This argument is not unfamiliar to Beijing, which has deployed military ships and aircraft, and installed radars, missile systems and rocket launchers on several of the artificial islands it has constructed in the Spratlys.
To the international community, the stark contradictions between the peaceful statements made by Beijing and the actions that followed have been cause for concern. The difference between the military activities by Vietnam and China is a matter of proportionality in capability and strategy.
Vietnam has increased its defence budget from $1.3 billion in 2006 to $4.6 billion in 2015, accounting for a 253.85% increase to become the fourth largest defence spender in Southeast Asia.
While rising defence spending in Asia could be viewed as destabilising by leading to an arms race, Vietnam’s effort is a fraction of China’s defence spending; in 2016 it was $146.6 billion.
Moreover, the ends to which these defence expenditures can also be used differ greatly. Vietnam’s possible island fortifications pale in comparison with China’s assertive behaviour in the region through its maritime militia, island construction and claim of over 90% of the South China Sea.
Beijing has also hinted that the creation of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea would be in its right, and it has staunchly refused to engage in arbitration or multilateral negotiations over the claims.
Beijing’s reassurances have therefore done little to quell concerns. Chinese Naval Commander Wu Shengli stated in January last year that the amount of defences that China would install ‘completely depends on the level of threat we face’.
This argument would be credible if China actually faced a threat in the region. Currently, it deems innocent passage and freedom of navigation exercises, mostly conducted by the US and lawful under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as a threat.
Conversely, China has actively blocked other countries from accessing areas of the South China Sea, most recently in March 2017 when Philippine fishing vessels sought access to Jackson (Quirino) Atoll in the Spratlys.
Understanding what constitutes China’s militarisation activities and what they mean has also started to take on global significance.
Recent comments by Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, fuelled speculation over Chinese global strategic ambitions when he stated that, ‘China will build about 10 more bases for the six aircraft carriers’ and would have to beef up its marine corps from 20,000 to 100,000 to offer ‘off-shore support’.
Pakistan was mentioned as a key partner and indications for a future People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence in the country are growing.
On 24 March, the Chinese army, navy and air force marched for the first time ever in a Pakistani military parade. Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain noted this show of defence cooperation a ‘historic event’.
The potential deployment of Chinese marines to Gwadar, the Chinese port facility in Pakistan (a keystone project in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) and to its first overseas base in Djibouti has been in particular focus as a sign of what the future may hold.
Such a deployment would set a clear precedent for similar deployments of military personnel and systems across the One Belt, One Road initiative into which China has invested so much.
It might not be long before PLA forces establish a presence in Walvis Bay (Namibia), São Tomé and Príncipe, Kyaukphyu (Myanmar), Piraeus (Greece), Djibouti and the Seychelles. Indeed, the US has already expressed concern over possible use of the Chinese owned port in Darwin, Australia for military purposes.
China does not appear to use local forces or contractors yet to secure its facilities. Thus any security team is likely to be a deployment of military personnel on rotation – possibly by marine force from the PLA Navy, along with accompanying weapons and systems that allow for surveillance and force protection against a myriad of threats.
Should such a deployment be regarded as ‘force protection’ (in Western parlance) or a militarised footprint capable of increased intervention at range?
Are these moves simply part and parcel of China’s military modernisation, defence cooperation and protecting economic and national interests abroad, or are they acts of militarisation with a strategic offensive end goal in mind that seeks to change the status quo?
How China engages its growing naval and marine forces in its contracted port facilities in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as its naval base in Djibouti, may be the best indicators of the future of Chinese power projection.
Until then, China must accept that when it comes to militarisation, not all countries are made equal. As a growing major power with an international presence, greater scrutiny of Chinese military activities is a reality it will need to accept.
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences