Asia's Game of Thrones
Chinese Islands Could Host Missiles, Say U.S. Officials

China is apparently nearing completion on structures intended to host missiles on its artificial islands. Reuters has the story on the latest sign of escalation in the South China Sea:

China, in an early test of U.S. President Donald Trump, has nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two U.S. officials told Reuters. […]

Building the concrete structures with retractable roofs on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, part of the Spratly Islands chain where China already has built military-length airstrips, could be considered a military escalation, the U.S. officials said in recent days, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It is not like the Chinese to build anything in the South China Sea just to build it, and these structures resemble others that house SAM batteries, so the logical conclusion is that’s what they are for,” said a U.S. intelligence official, referring to surface-to-air missiles.

The news about the missile structures is being spun as a test of President Trump, and it will certainly pose a challenge for an administration intent on getting tough in the South China Sea. But it is worth noting that such structures could not have been built overnight as a response to the new President. China got used to making steady gains on its island-building during President Obama’s watch, undeterred by the occasional warning or freedom-of-navigation exercise. A year ago, China even deployed missiles to one island in the South China Sea. The news that Beijing is planning more is just the latest sign of its increasingly confident and aggressive posture.

China’s neighbors seem progressively unnerved by every Chinese step in the South China Sea, but it isn’t clear they can credibly stand up to Beijing. Yesterday ASEAN issued a surprisingly tough statement on China’s militarization of the islands, which may have been occasioned by early intelligence about the missile structures. The Philippines, however, has been vacillating between confronting and appeasing China: After the ASEAN statement, for instance, the Philippine Foreign Secretary said that the South China Sea dispute would not be resolved any time soon, and that diplomatic engagement with Beijing would be more productive than confrontation. Vietnam, by contrast, has taken a more consistently assertive approach, dredging its own reefs and building its own runways in response to China’s aggressive moves.

The Trump Administration, for its part, has signaled a tougher bilateral stance against China, and it seems to be serious about stepping up naval patrols and confronting China over its militarization of the South China Sea. But Washington has not sent coherent signals about how it may work with allies to further that aim, and the Philippine statement yesterday suggested that ASEAN members are eagerly awaiting a clarification from the U.S. side. The Trump team would do well to bring its diplomatic resources to bear on the dispute: Virtually every day brings another reminder why the South China Sea could be one of the most dangerous foreign policy theaters for the new administration.

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