Troubled Waters
Militarization of South China Sea Proceeds Apace

The cat is out of the bag: new satellite imagery confirms that weapons have been installed on China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, despite Beijing’s official claims that it is not seeking to militarize the region. Reuters:

China appears to have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank reported on Wednesday, citing new satellite imagery.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarize the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries. […]

Satellite images of Hughes and Gaven reefs showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes, it said. […]

The latest revelations are a clear sign of militarization and could escalate rising tensions over Beijing’s activities in the region. Last week, the Chinese flew a nuclear-capable H-6 bomber over disputed islands in the South China Sea, in what some interpreted as a message to the incoming Trump Administration. And today, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, warned that the United States is ready to push back against China’s “aggressive” maneuvers:

“We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” he said. “We will cooperate when we can but we will be ready to confront when we must.”

The question of the hour is how Donald Trump will handle the increasingly volatile region. Early word from Trump security advisor Jim Woolsey suggested that the incoming administration intends to project power more forcefully and push back against Chinese expansionism. Trump’s subsequent appointments are painting a fuller picture. His Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, is on the record supporting a naval buildup to counterbalance against China’s “bullying role” in the South China Sea. And Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has shown a willingness to buck Beijing’s claims as well: as CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson signed a controversial deal with Vietnam to drill in disputed waters, provoking China’s anger.

These early signs, then, suggest that the Trump team may be preparing for some serious pushback against China. The incoming administration will have its work cut out in navigating these troubled waters, if it seeks to credibly deter China without dangerously escalating the situation.

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