TOKYO A maritime security net is closing in on China in the South China Sea, where Beijing is building artificial islands on reefs to erect military facilities in disputed waters. The U.S. plans to start joint patrols in the waters with Japan, Australia and the Philippines. Bilateral cooperation is also deepening to curb China's military ambitions.
"What's new is not an American carrier in this region. What's new is the context of tension which exists, which we want to reduce," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on April 15 during his visit to the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier deployed in the South China Sea. His remark came as the U.S. and the Philippines agreed to start joint patrols in the sea. U.S. forces have also gained access to Philippine bases, including those along the South China Sea coast, in accordance with their 2014 bilateral pact. This means U.S. troops will return to the Southeast Asian country after withdrawing from there some 20 years ago.
Japan is part of the stepped-up security cooperation. It signed an agreement in February to transfer defense equipment and technology to the Philippines, following similar deals with the U.S., Britain, Australia, France and India. The agreement lays the groundwork for possible weapons exports in the future. The Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers Ariake and Setogiri docked at the Port of Subic Bay in the Philippines on April 3, then sailed across the South China Sea to make a call at a military port in Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam on April 12, becoming the first MSDF vessels to do so. The submarine Hakuryu took part in a joint exercise, and became the first Japanese submarine to dock at Sydney Harbor three days later. Japan is trying to sell the same type of submarine to Australia and hopes that the planned export will help bolster defense cooperation with the country and the U.S. to counter China.
Beijing isn't sitting idly by. On the day Carter visited the USS John C. Stennis, the Defense Ministry announced that Gen. Fan Changlong -- the country's most senior uniformed officer and a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission -- inspected man-made islands in the Spratly Islands. The announcement indicated that China has no intention to stop building on reefs and atolls on the island chain.
Building artificial islands is aimed at turning the South China Sea into a "sanctuary" where U.S. forces cannot operate. The ultimate goal is to deploy submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to discourage Washington from attempting military interventions in East Asia. Beijing is following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, which made the Sea of Okhotsk a sanctuary and deployed SLBMs to keep the U.S. in check during the Cold War.
But the situation isn't in China's favor. Back in the Cold War days, the Soviets controlled the Sea of Okhotsk in all directions except southwest, which faces Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido. China's control in the South China Sea only covers the northern part, namely the mainland and Hainan Island. The rest of the area is surrounded by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which claim sovereignty over various islands. Due to its strategic importance, the South China Sea for China is often likened to the Caribbean Sea for the U.S. But the Baltic Sea for Russia is a better comparison, because that arm of the Atlantic Ocean is surrounded by Germany, Denmark and four other NATO members, as well as by Sweden and Finland, which may seek to join the military alliance.
Another problem is that islands cannot move like aircraft carriers. If the U.S. and China were engaged in a military clash, the islands would be the first target of cruise missiles launched from nuclear-powered submarines and become unusable. The huge amount of money spent on the construction would be wasted. Since the biggest enemy of a submarine is another submarine, China needs to have submarine units as capable as those of the U.S. to protect the islands. In this respect, however, an "allied fleet" of the U.S., Japan and Australia is likely to keep the upper hand for some time.
So it will be wise for China to maintain the current approach of avoiding direct military confrontation with the U.S. while increasing its presence in the South China Sea. In the future, Chinese fighter jets taking off from the man-made islands may fly extremely close to foreign aircraft without engaging in fighting. Or Chinese naval vessels stationed on the islands may lock their weapons-targeting radar on other countries' ships -- a step taken before a missile launch. If such intimidation discourages countries bordering the South China Sea from navigating in the waters, that would be exactly what Beijing wants to achieve.
To prepare for such a scenario, the U.S., Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam are expected to step up cooperation, creating a network to contain China by ensuring superiority both during conflicts and in peacetime.