Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Missile-Deployment Controversy Splashes on, as PRC Foreign Minister Visits Washington

Lawfare Staff
Friday, February 26, 2016, 2:24 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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DigitalGlobe medium view imagery from 09 January 2016 of Woody Island.  Woody Island is also known as Yongxing Island and Phu Lam Island and is the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite imagery of Woody Island, the site of recent PRC military deployments (Photo: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images)

Picking up right where our last post left off, diplomatic sparring over China’s reported missile deployment to Woody Island continued last Friday, with PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei insisting that it is the United States that bears responsibility for “militarizing the South China Sea.” To support this claim, Mr. Lei pointed to U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), “close-up military surveillance,” joint military drills and cruises, and an increased military presence in the region. On Monday, Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying largely echoed this position while testing out a new one: “There is no difference between China’s deployment of necessary national defense facilities on its own territory and the defense installation by the US in Hawaii.” Ms. Hua also called on Washington to “live up to its commitment of not taking sides on relevant disputes concerning territorial sovereignty, stop sensationalizing the South China Sea issue, stop hyping up tensions and work constructively for regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite.”

Several key Asian-Pacific players also moved to fortify their positions after initially issuing cautious responses to the missile deployment. The Philippine Foreign Ministry said that Manila was “gravely concerned” by the development and that such moves only serve to “further erode trust and confidence and aggravate the already tense situation.” Vietnam, meanwhile, issued diplomatic notes to both the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the UN Secretary General, demanding an end to “China’s infringement of Vietnam’s sovereignty.” And at a joint press conference, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and his New Zealander counterpart, John Key, urged “all claimants in the South China Sea to refrain from any building of islands, any militarization of islands, any land reclamation.”

This flurry of diplomatic exchanges set the stage for PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s previously schedule visit to Washington. As if tensions weren’t high enough, just as Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Mr. Wang at the State Department on Tuesday, Fox News broke an exclusive report that China had deployed fighter jets to Woody Island. According to unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, around ten Shenyang J-11s and Xian JH-7s were spotted on the same contested island where Beijing deployed surface-to-air missiles last week. China previously sent fighter jets to Woody Island (see here and here), but the timing of this deployment was less than auspicious for Mr. Wang’s trip.

Nonetheless, the meeting between Mssrs. Kerry and Wang appeared to be fairly productive, especially on the subject of reigning in North Korea. At a joint press conference, Mr. Kerry stated that “the United States and China share one of the most consequential relationships in the world.” He also told reporters that the top diplomats had discussed “diplomatic solutions to the competing claims in the South China Sea” but stressed his regret that “missiles, fighter aircraft, guns, artillery and other things [had] been placed in the South China Sea.” For his part, Mr. Wang said that “[t]he South China Sea issue is not and should not become an issue between China and United States” and noted that the Asian Pacific “is stable compared with other parts of the world.” However, he also expressed his hope that America would not continue its “close-up military reconnaissance or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea.”

Later on Tuesday, Mr. Wang was scheduled to drop by the Pentagon, but the visit was canceled due to a “scheduling conflict.” However, a statement from Department of Defense spokesman Commander Bill Urban suggests that the itinerary change might have been linked to the military fighter deployment: “The specifics of a recent deployment of fighter aircraft to Woody Island would be less an issue than the signal it sends of how far out of step China’s actions are with the aspirations of the region.” On Wednesday, the Foreign Minister met with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice as scheduled, and they “candidly discussed” maritime issues without making any reported breakthroughs. Thus, the controversy surrounding militarization of the South China Sea will spill into another week without any real resolution.

In other news…

United States

Making good on his promise last week to raise the issue of China’s missile deployment at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, SASC Chairman John McCain used his opening remarks to accuse China of acting like a regional “bully.” He further suggested that “risk aversion” on the part of the Obama Administration was to blame for “an indecisive and inadequate policy that has confused and alarmed our regional allies and partners.” During the hearing, Admiral Harry Harris testified that “China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you’d have to believe in flat earth to think otherwise.” The Admiral added that Beijing is “changing the operational landscape” in pursuit of “hegemony in East Asia.” His full written testimony can be found here.

On Wednesday, the United States and the European Union warned Beijing that it must respect the upcoming merits decision in the Philippines v. PRC maritime arbitration case. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amy Searight told a CSIS seminar that the United States and its allies “need to be ready to be very loud and vocal, in harmony together, standing behind the Philippines and the rest of the ASEAN claimants to say that this is international law [and] is binding on all parties.” Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration lacks enforcement powers, Klaus Botzet, head of the political section of the EU Delegation in DC, said it would be difficult for China to oppose world opinion. Ms. Searight also suggested that America and her allies would “think of other creative ways to perhaps impose costs as well.”


On Monday, AMTI published a report concluding that China has nearly completed what appears to be a high-frequency radar array on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys, based on satellite photographs taken as recently as February 12. More specifically, images show “two probable radar towers” and “a number of 65-foot poles” across the island. The radar antenna farm was first noted in an article by Victor Robert Lee in The Diplomat. The New York Times explains that his type of radar can be used to track aircraft, detect ship traffic, and measure ocean currents.

A Pentagon statement issued to USNI News stated that the imagery supplements “a growing body of evidence that China continues to take unilateral actions which are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive to the peaceful resolution of disputes.” PRC Foreign Ministry spokeswoman countered by stressing the need for reporters to remain “objective and impartial” in their coverage of the South China Sea. She rhetorically asked journalists, “When you report what China is deploying, have you ever noted that some countries have deployed quite a few radar and military facilities in the past decades on the islands and reefs that they illegally seized from China?”

Other satellite imagery that published by The Washington Post reveals radar facilities under constructed on other Spratly islands, including Johnson South, Hughes, and Gaven Reefs. These photographs confirm a Reuters prediction that Beijing’s efforts to arm its territories in the Paracels would likely be replicated on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. According to unnamed diplomats and security experts, both disputed island chains are expected to host jet fighter operations and widespread surveillance, while also housing meaningful civilian populations.


U.S. Seventh Fleet Commander Joseph Aucoin visited Australia this week for high-level talks with defense officials about tensions in the South China Sea. During the trip, Admiral Aucoin pressed his counterparts to conduct their own freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), which he suggested would be “valuable” and in the region’s “best interests.” Softening his position somewhat, the Admiral lamented that tensions have been “portrayed as U.S. vs. China.” He added: “This shouldn’t seem provocative. What we’re trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions.” Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy agreed, declaring that there is now reason why Australia could not conduct FONOPS.

Citing the increasing military threat posed by China, Canberra announced a robust increase in defense spending, including the biggest expansion to the Royal Australian Navy since World War II. An accompanying white paper created by the Liberal Party government cited concern over the “unprecedented pace and scale” of land reclamation by the Chinese in the South China Sea. It also reveals that the current fleet will be supplemented with twelve new submarines, twelve combat patrol vessels, and nine antisubmarine frigates. PM Malcolm Turnbull described the white paper's conclusions as a “cleareyed and unsentimental appraisal of our strategic environment.”


Over the weekend, Japanese diplomatic sources revealed that Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has abandoned all hope of visiting China this spring after receiving notice from Beijing that it currently has no plans to host Mr. Kishida and needs more time ‘to prepare a better environment.’ A source close to PRC officials suggested that Japan’s criticism of Chinese land-reclamation efforts and pressure over the recent North Korean rocket launch had touched a raw nerve, despite an overall thaw in bilateral relations of late.

The Asahi Shimbun reports that the Japan Coast Guard has taken delivery of two large patrol ships, rounding out a ten-vessel fleet designated exclusively for patrolling the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The order for the ships was originally placed in 2012 after Tokyo nationalized several of the disputed chain’s islands. Although the overall number PRC ships sighted in Japanese territorial waters has fallen significantly in recent years (to about three per month), the China recently sailed armed coast guard vessels in the area, and Chinese marine research vessels have increasingly attempted to survey the underwater topography in Japan’s exclusive economic zone without seeking permission, despite the requirement under UNCLOS to do so.


In response to complaints from Japanese fishery associations, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised to protect the rights of its fishermen during the fifth meeting of the Taiwan-Japan Fishing Commission next week. The body was created in 2013 after Tokyo and Taipei signed a pact on fishing rights in the East China Sea, which allowed trawlers from both nations to operate freely around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. As The News Lens explains, fishermen from the two countries often scuffle over tangled fishing nets due to different traditional practices, and Japanese fishermen have also expressed frustration with the Taiwanese custom of using a more space to fish.


Last Friday, youth groups led by the Kabataan Party-list stormed the PRC consulate in Makati City to protest China’s reported deployment of surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island—an action they deemed an “orchestrated move” by Beijing to escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Protestors also burned mock missiles in front of the Chinese consulate. Sarah Elago, Kabataan Party first nominee, suggested that “[i]nstalling armaments in the disputed seas will undoubtedly heighten tensions among claimant nations. Beijing claims that the missiles have been installed for self-defense, but there is no guarantee that the Chinese government will not use these missiles against neighboring countries to assert its claim over the whole South China Sea.”


Hanoi has significantly increased weapons purchases over recent years amid simmering tensions in the South China Sea. According to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Vietnam was the eighth-largest global arms importer over the 2011-2015 period—a steep climb up from forty-third place during the previous five year period. Defense experts predict that maritime-surveillance aircraft, drones, and advanced sensors and satellite systems will be next on Hanoi’s shopping list.

Earlier this month, we covered a triumphant PRC state-owned media report that Typhoon Melor ‘blew away an illegal island made by Vietnam.’ AMTI takes a look back at Hanoi’s reclamation effort, how it compares to China’s artificial-islands construction, and the real impact of the typhoon.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

For those readers not up to date on Water Wars, AMTI Director Gregory Poling provides a great overview of why 2016 will be (and already has been) a tumultuous year in the South China Sea. Also taking the long view, Andrew Poulin distills four trends that will define the future of the South China Sea, while the Independent’s Peter Popham explains why a lesson from Thucydides spells trouble for the Asian Pacific.

Over at The Diplomat, Jin Kai dissects five Western misconceptions about the PRC’s missile deployment, and Prashanth Parameswaran offers some important nuance to consider in assessing last week’s U.S.-ASEAN Summit. On a related note, Nikkei’s Tamaki Kyozuka opines that competing national interests thwarted a collective ASEAN response to China at the summit.

And from the think-tank world, CSIS hosted PRC Foreign Minister Wang during his trip to DC. The full audio of his remarks can be found here. Also this week, the Council on Foreign Relations released an extensive report entitled “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage.” Of particular interest, the report concludes that “[e]conomic growth and nationalism have for decades been the two founts of legitimacy for the Communist Party, and as the former wanes, [PRC President Xi Jinping] will likely rely increasingly on the latter,” with potentially huge ramifications for the Asian Pacific.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email us with breaking news or relevant documents.

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