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China’s New Missiles in the Spratlys May be a Turning Point

3 10 14

In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping oversaw the PLA Navy’s largest-ever display of warships, submarines, and aircraft in a massive naval review in the South China Sea. Last month, U.S. intelligence sources revealed that around the same time as that show of overt might, China quietly deployed advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles to bases on three disputed features in the Spratly Islands. In contrast to China’s earlier incremental moves in the South China Sea, this deployment motivated the United States and an expanding coalition of partners to impose new consequences on China and commit to a greater military presence in the region.

China’s South China Sea strategy has mixed its island construction as a fait accompli with a gradual ratcheting up of its military presence and activities, carefully calibrating its efforts to ensure they did not provoke international responses that could spiral into crisis or conflict. The new head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently testified that as a result, China can now control the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.

The United States has long been concerned by the potential for China’s Spratlys bases to project offensive military force, but because China had not yet deployed weapons systems to them that posed a significant offensive threat, the U.S. response has been restrained. That is what made this missile deployment different, and why the United States and others have reacted so strongly to it.

In 2013, China began large-scale land reclamation and construction on seven geographic features it occupied in the Spratly island chain, transforming uninhabitable reefs into sprawling man-made islands with significant infrastructure. Early on, the Chinese government improbably maintained that the facilities’ purpose was principally for safety of navigation and disaster relief logistics, emphasizing the lighthouses it had built instead of the bunkers and surveillance installations.

Part of what enabled China to spend the last several years building up its bases in the Spratly Islands comparatively unmolested, was Xi Jinping’s statement at a White House summit in 2015 that China was committed to upholding freedom of navigation and did not “intend to pursue militarization.” Many analysts subsequently characterized Xi’s statement as a pledge or promise not to militarize the Spratlys, even though in retrospect it was far more diplomatically........

© The Diplomat