Amidst reports that last week was not the first time China has deployed missiles to the South China Sea, Reuters is saying that the move is part of a broader buildup in the Paracel island chain—and beyond:
From listening posts to jet fighter deployments and now surface-to-air missiles, China’s expanding facilities in the Paracel Islands are a signal of long-term plans to strengthen its military reach across the disputed South China Sea.
Diplomats and security experts in contact with Chinese military strategists say Beijing’s moves to arm and expand its long-established holdings in the Paracels will likely be replicated on its man-made islands in the more contentious Spratly archipelago, some 500 kms (300 miles) further south.
Meanwhile, in a separate piece, Reuters also reports on a surge in weapons exports from—and a telling fall in imports to—China over the past five years:
China has almost doubled its weapons exports in the past five years, a military think tank said on Monday, as the world’s third-largest weapons exporter pours capital into developing an advanced arms manufacturing industry.
In 2011 to 2015, China’s arms imports fell 25 percent compared with the previous five year period, signaling a growing confidence in the country’s homegrown weaponry despite key areas of weakness, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report on global arms transfers.
The Wall Street Journal explains that SIPRI’s analysis suggests both that China’s military strength is growing and that it is willing to allow, and even to support, a regional arms race—one that the United States is not happy to see.
Alas, it’s not surprising to see that China has become increasing aggressive under President Obama’s tenure. It isn’t all his fault. Many Chinese read the 2008 financial collapse as a sign of the coming end of American hegemony. And, on the other side of the ledger, the pivot to Asia was launched as an attempt by the administration to assert an American presence in the area.
But as the Obama presidency has progressed, and particularly since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule began in 2012, it’s become clear that China’s leaders don’t consider Washington’s repeated threats very threatening. U.S. dithering on the South China Sea last year made the eventual freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-claimed islands less effective than they could have been, and it didn’t help that the first attempt may have implicitly acknowledged China’s territorial claims. Meanwhile, Beijing has been watching America’s (lack of a) strategy in the Middle East, and getting the sense that this U.S. administration isn’t any more likely to respond to challenges from Beijing than it is likely to respond to direct challenges from Moscow.
To be sure, the Obama administration hasn’t merely sat by doing nothing, and it has worked to strengthen alliances in southeast Asia (although not with Thailand) and with Canberra, Seoul, and Tokyo. And, of course, it’s difficult for any president to change course in a lame duck year. Nevertheless, as the events reported on in the first Reuters story suggest, Beijing appears to believe that this final Obama year is a critical opportunity for them to strengthen their territorial claims and build up their military capacity.
The next administration will likely be less cautious about Beijing. Whatever else he or she believes, Obama’s successor likely won’t share his belief that America should loosen its hold on the tiller and let the tides of history carry the world to happier shores. In other words: We expect things to change in January 2017. Until then, however, we may see more stories like this one.