It has recently emerged that China has deployed YJ-62 Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) to Woody Island in the South China Sea (SCS). Woody Island is part of the Parcel Island chain and is disputed, as Vietnam, Taiwan and China claim sovereignty over the island. China has exercised de facto control over Woody Island since the 1950s. Unlike some land features in the SCS, Woody Island is a large and well-established island whose land mass is over 500 acres and whose population is around 1400 persons.
Given the size of Woody Island, the deployment of ASCMs to the island should not come as a surprise. After all, the island already has an air defense unit, military outposts, a bank, and even an airport.
The real significance of the deployment is that it establishes a precedent for militarizing disputed islands, of which China claims many. Unlike Woody Island, many of China’s holdings in the SCS are features which were originally partially submerged. China has been engaged in massive land reclamation in the SCS, dredging up thousands of tons of seabed and adding it to these features so that they can house military facilities. These activities are contentious, as many nations refuse to even acknowledge these features as islands. In response to the land reclamation, some nations have conducted freedom-of-navigation patrols. Many of these patrols affirm that the patrolling nation does not view such man-made islands as warranting any sort of a territorial sea (some patrols are designed to exercise other tenets of maritime law, such as freedom of passage). Territorial disputes in the SCS have also led to many run-ins, often between non-military vessels (such as fishing trawlers or coast guard ships).
One important question regarding China’s island militarization activities: what are the implications for the other nations with a stake in the SCS? If China were to deploy missiles to islands in the SCS, what would the consequences be?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question of how effective China’s militarized islands would be in a war, as many factors must be taken into account.
For one, the value of the islands will depend on the ability of their military facilities to survive bombardment. Some islands, such as Woody Island, appear to have organic air defense capabilities (in this case the HQ-9 SAM). China appears to be constructing anti-aircraft missile sites on some of its other features as well. Undoubtedly, placing anti-air batteries on the islands is essential, as they would be inundated with missile and bomb attacks in the opening phase of a war against a powerful adversary. In addition, many of the islands have an infantry garrison, which would be necessary to stop the islands from being overrun by an aerial or amphibious invasion. Some of the islands even house airfields, which could be used to defend the islands against bomber attacks or to refuel Chinese aircraft and extend their range.
The military value of the islands will depend heavily on the adversary. For nations such as the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which have large quantities of cruise missiles and strike aircraft, any defense emplacements on the islands would be little more than a nuisance. After all, most of the islands are quite small, and there is only so much space for defensive armaments. Even with air-defense units deployed, there is little chance that these static targets would last long in a shooting war against such an adversary; the attackers could quickly overwhelm the air defenses with a multitude of bombs and stealthy missiles, depleting the supply of HQ-9s or evading the defenses altogether. This severely restricts the value of the islands as a defensive tool, as the airfields and missile batteries would quickly be destroyed and the islands would be rendered useless. The inevitability of these islands being overwhelmed in a war is commonly noted in analysis, because most analysts include the US as a player in their hypothetical conflicts.
But what happens if China fights with a smaller military over islands in the SCS?
For nations without a large strike aircraft or cruise missile arsenal, China’s militarization of the islands would pose much more of a threat. While such nations may still be able to overwhelm the islands’ air defenses, it would take much longer and the losses may be unacceptably high. The Philippines, for example, has no missile-armed surface ships and a mere five jet combat aircraft, all of which are armed trainers. Needless to say, if China were to place HQ-9s and YJ-62s on an island claimed by the Philippines, it would be virtually impossible for the Philippines to recapture the island without the aid of an ally. China could then use the islands to blockade its adversaries with aircraft and missiles.
Many of these smaller nations have alliances which help level the playing field. But, these alliances generally come with strings attached. For example, while the Philippines is allied with the US, the treaty only concerns mutual defense; whether or not the US would view the takeover of a Philippine island as warranting a full-fledged war against China is unclear. Thus, while it is easy to write off China’s activities in the SCS as showboating, the military significance of Chinese missile deployments varies drastically depending on the circumstances and the parties involved in the conflict, and a scenario in which island defenses are decisive is possible under certain circumstances.
In addition to wartime considerations, the militarization of islands in the SCS will undoubtedly carry geopolitical consequences. Even advanced militaries such as the US military fear of losing a vessel to missile attack, and the deployment of missiles to islands in the SCS would ratchet up the stakes in any sort of confrontation over the islands.
Providing the islands with a permanent military presence would also solidify China’s territorial claims by demonstrating resolve and deterring any sort of a rapid invasion of the island. For islands contested by smaller nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, or Vietnam, the Chinese military presence on various islands could be even more of a political issue, as these countries are severely outmatched by the PLAN and cannot trade blows with China in a crisis. The leaders of these countries will have to balance appearing resolute for their domestic audiences and avoiding an actual conflict, in which defeat would be all but guaranteed.
China’s pushes to strengthen SCS claims are also intended for a domestic audience. As China’s growth appears to be slowing and citizens become increasingly discontent with the state of China’s freedoms and environment, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) is likely to look for new ways to garner support. By painting the struggles in the SCS as an endeavor which China is entitled to undertake, the CPC is able to drum up support for its actions and dismiss detractors as “unpatriotic,” thus providing domestic political benefits.
Thus, it is unsurprising China continues to act confrontationally in the SCS. Unless some sort of a breakthrough is achieved, the missiles on Woody Island will remain, Chinese dredging and construction on other islands will continue, and missiles will probably be placed on these expanded islands in due time. How exactly the other players in the region will respond, and whether a unified front can be organized, remains to be seen.