Why did China deploy missiles in the South China Sea?

The South China Sea islands have been disputed territory for decades. Does China's recent missile deployment indicate the increasing militarization of the islands?

Wu Hong/AP
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, speaks as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop listens during their joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on Wednesday. China's moves to assert its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea were expected to be discussed during a visit by Bishop to Beijing.

As the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wrapped up talks yesterday in Sunnylands, California, officials in Taiwan confirmed that China had deployed surface to air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has been a hotly contested area for decades due to an abundance of natural resources, including oil.

According to Center for Strategic and International Studies expert Bonnie Glaser, China’s expansion is driven by security concerns. “The Chinese are increasingly concerned about their security, and want to protect their maritime interests.”

The tiny island chains that dot the sea have been claimed by several countries, many of which were in attendance at the ASEAN summit in California this week.

Taiwan and China are not the only countries that have laid claim to at least some of the South China Sea territory: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are all involved in the dispute.

In 2009, China presented a claim to the area it calls the “near seas” before the United Nations. Ms. Glaser called the claim “ambiguous,” and says that it is based on a historic map of the South China Sea.

According to Taiwan, China deployed the missiles on Woody Island, part of a disputed chain of islands called the Paracels. Although China technically controls the chain, Vietnam and Taiwan have both asserted their claims to the territory.

A statement released by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense asked “relevant parties to refrain from any unilateral measure that would increase tensions.”

A United States official confirmed that China had indeed installed H-9 missile batteries on Woody Island.

Since last summer, China has been expanding its control in the South China Sea through a variety of efforts, including building man-made islands in the Spratly island chain. The construction of airfields on various islands in the area also allows China greater control over the airspace.

In October, President Obama called for a halt to China’s island construction after a meeting with Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III.

“We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions,” said Mr. Obama, “including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea.”

The Asian giant’s refusal to cease expansion efforts, despite rival claims on the territory, has aroused fears that China is militarizing the South China Sea.

The US government has repeatedly asserted that China has no right to assert that kind of control. In October, the Pentagon sent the USS Lassen on a patrol near one of the disputed islands in a show of support for the principles of freedom of navigation.

This week’s ASEAN conference addressed the dispute. According to Obama, attendees "discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas."

The new missile installation on Woody Island obviously escalates tensions. Yet, Glaser told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview that China views its expansion efforts in the South China Sea as defensive.

Reuters reports that a statement by a Chinese government official on Wednesday confirmed China’s defensive perspective.

"As for the limited and necessary self-defense facilities that China has built on islands and reefs we have people stationed on,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “this is consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law so there should be no question about it."

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Jennifer Harris had a slightly different view. Ms. Harris told the Monitor in a phone interview that, “My take on this is that it is a testing ground for China to test its rising strength against the US.”

Although the missile installment on Woody Island is ostensibly an Asian issue, the United States a vested interest in maintaining stability in the region. According to Glaser, much of the $5.3 trillion in trade that passes through the South China Sea goes to the United States.

The United States also is interested in maintaining civility in the region. “We don’t want to see China using coercion and intimidation against its neighbors,” says Glaser.  

Harris told the Monitor that perhaps the best tool the United States possesses is its relationship with ASEAN, the group of ten southeast Asian countries that met this week in California. Although ASEAN is currently militarily focused, it could do more to counter China’s economic coercion.

“Hopefully the next act is not just traditional territorial boundary enforcement,” said Harris, “but the creation of new norms and a push back against economic coercion.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why did China deploy missiles in the South China Sea?
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2016/0217/Why-did-China-deploy-missiles-in-the-South-China-Sea
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe