The growing militarisation of the South China Sea is rattling nerves across the region as China, the United States and Vietnam all take steps to strengthen their presence in the disputed waters.
If the US thought its ongoing despatch of warships on “freedom of navigation” missions would deter China’s military buildup, it has been forced to think again.
The top US military official in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, said the latest evidence showed that China was busy militarising the South China sea.
“You have to believe in a flat Earth,” he said, to think that’s China goal was not to achieve “hegemony in East Asia.”
Satellite pictures have shown that China is deploying formidable surface to air missiles in the Paracels, and new evidence has indicated a further strengthening of its capabilities in the disputed Spratly Islands further south.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that new radar installations had been spotted on recently constructed islands in the chain of scattered reefs, islets and shoals.
It said they could “significantly bolster China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic” in the South China Sea.
Vietnam most threatened
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman gave no details of any deployments, but aggressively defended China’s posture in the region.
“China’s deploying of necessary, limited defensive facilities on its own territory is not substantively different from the United States defending Hawaii,” she said.
Neither side is expected to give ground during the current visit to the United States by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
Vietnam is the country that feels most threatened by China’s growing belligerence.
A foreign ministry spokesman described the missile deployment by China as a “serious infringement of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracels,”
In one of its most outspoken statements so far it appealed to the United Nations, saying that China’s move “threatens peace and stability in the region as well as security, safety and freedom of navigation and flight.”
Vietnam has become one of world’s ten largest weapons importers as it races to build a credible deterrent force. It has been reinforcing its positions on islets it occupies in the Spratly chain, although it has no bases in the Paracels which were lost to China during a battle in 1974.
Vietnam’s defence budget is dwarfed by China’s, but it hopes that a new fleet of Russian built submarines, drones, radar and satellite stations and updated surface patrol craft will at least give the Chinese cause to think twice before initiating hostilities.
In a sign of its alarm, Vietnam is now actively encouraging the United States to strengthen its presence.
China alleges provocation
The US has asked other countries, including Australia, to take part in “freedom of navigation” missions, in which warships are sailed within the territorial waters of Chinese occupied outposts in the Spratlys and Paracels.
China, however, has responded with an escalation, indicating that American naval and airforce patrols were instrumental in provoking it to deploy new weapons systems.
Analysts say that China’s new HQ-9 missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracels pose a formidable danger to American forces.
Professor Carlyle Thayer told the Sydney Morning Herald that the missiles could threaten carrier based aircraft that came to the help of US naval patrols.
Beijing eventually took a step back and allowed tensions to ease after years of escalating pressure on Japan over Japanese controlled islands in the East China Sea.
There is no sign of that happening in the South China Sea.
On the contrary, as Xi Jinping tightens his iron grip on the leadership, there is every indication that he means to stamp China’s authority on the southern seas whatever the cost to relations with its smaller and more vulnerable neighbours