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China’s 2015 military strategy, what it means for the PH

Zachary Abuza
The Philippines must push ASEAN to draft a binding Code of Conduct without Chinese participation

On May 26, 2015, the State Council issued China’s Military Strategy.  The 6,500-word strategy, broken into 6 chapters, exudes confidence and a more muscular foreign policy, reflective of China’s dramatically increased military capabilities. 

It encompasses the language of President Xi Jinping, who has espoused a more assertive China, seeking superpower status and a much enlarged domain for national security, far from the country’s borders. The white paper has profound implications for Philippine security.  

First, the white paper warned that “some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.” China is putting the other claimant states on notice that the existing status quo is unacceptable to China, which is increasingly willing to be more confrontational.

Second, the white paper makes very clear that China’s over-riding strategic interests are maritime in nature and that its force development will focus on “critical security domains,” maritime being the first, followed by space and cyber.

The white paper prioritizes “maritime military struggle and maritime preparation for military struggle.” In plain language, China will dedicate more funding to its navy and land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea to fully assert its sovereign claims.  

In the past decade, China’s official military spending has increased from $35 to $141 billion (303%), growing by double digits annually for nearly two decades. And even that figure is a gross underestimate as key line items, such as research and development, its space program, and veterans pay are included in other portions of the national budget.

China’s goal of having 415 warships, including 100 submarines by 2030, including 4 aircraft carriers, is within reach. China’s Coast Guard is larger than the coast guards of every other Asian country combined. China has brought similar aerial capabilities on line giving it unprecedented power projection capabilities.  

Chinese sovereignty

Third, the white paper states the goal of “enrich[ing] the strategic concept of an active defense.” This translates into stealthy, pro-active and pre-emptive tactics used to “defend” Chinese sovereignty, including reclamation on many many more atolls. 

As reclamation on Johnson South, Cuateron, Gaven, Fiery Cross, Subi, Hughes, and Mischief Reefs are soon completed, China’s armada of dredgers will move on to the next strategic locales, likely in the Loaita Bank, Scarborough Shoal and Reed Bank regions. No country has the capabilities to transform sub-surface reefs into manmade islands at a pace and scope as China, a policy that the white paper makes clear will continue.

Fourth, the white paper exudes the confidence that China has in its current position in the South China Sea. The reclamation efforts on 7 reefs in the Spratlys – which have added over 850 hectares since 2014 and include two new airfields, coupled with the expansion of territory and facilities in the Parcels – has given China confidence that it will soon have the capabilities in place to control the entire East Sea. 

And while these artificial islands are quite vulnerable in times of war, they are essential to the enforcement of Chinese sovereignty short of war: they give China the capabilities to enforce sovereignty, deny access, harass other claimants resupplying garrisons or maintaining aids to navigation.

China will have a large and robust naval, airfare, coast guard and large fisheries presence permanently deployed in the East Sea that will collectively be used to engage in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) for Southeast Asian claimant states. The recent revelation of mobile artillery on reclaimed islands, gives added weight to the A2/AD preparations.

Finally, it is very clear that Beijing will not be bound by any ruling by the UNCLOS arbitration panel expected in early 2016. Indeed, it is very telling that China’s Military Strategy makes absolutely no mention of international law as a basis of the country’s defense strategy.

That is no surprise given China’s cherry picked interpretation of the UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, there is no legal merit to China’s 9-dashed line, a clear violation of the littoral states’ continental shelf rights and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Nor does it permit 12NM territorial waters or 200NM EEZs from artificial islands. 

What to do?

So what can be done? The Philippines must continue its legal strategy. Though a bold move that infuriated China, it has forced Beijing to try to defend the legally indefensible. And there are costs to China’s bid for hegemony without accepting the rule of law. 

Second, the Philippines must push ASEAN to draft a binding Code of Conduct (COC) without Chinese participation; they have used every negotiation to thwart the conclusion of such an agreement. It’s time for ASEAN to acknowledge this and move on. 

Third, the Philippine Supreme Court must pass the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The Philippines has the barest capabilities to monitor its maritime domain; it cannot afford to be pre-empted again. A limited and rotating US maritime surveillance presences is both constitutional and poses no threat to Philippine sovereignty. Moreover, it improves Philippine capabilities and deepens the alliance commitment. 

The United States has signaled that it is going to increase its freedom of navigation and overflight challenges. On May 27, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned Beijing: “There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”

The establishment of territorial waters from artificial islands and the potential declaration of an ADIZ is an absolute redline for the United States, which has pledged $425 million in defense assistance to Southeast Asian states to bolster their maritime capabilities. –