- China and several of its neighbors have claimed parts of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
- A map from a recent Pentagon report shows how those countries are building outposts in the Spratlys.
- While China’s claims have been widely rejected, it continues to press them, at times aggressively
In November, the Pentagon released its annual China Military Power Report, which included a number of maps to illustrate its updated assessments of the Chinese military’s capabilities and reach.
One of those maps offered a detailed depiction of the Spratly Islands — one of the tensest areas of the South China Sea, broad swathes of which are disputed by China and its smaller neighbors.
Six different countries claim all or some of the islands and features in the Spratlys. Thanks to China’s land-reclamation and fortification efforts over the past decade, the islands it controls there have become the best-armed and most imposing.
China shows no signs of reducing its buildup or shrinking its presence, adding even more complexity to one of the most dynamic regions in the world.
China’s ‘dangerous position’
The map, one of several in the report depicting Chinese forces, shows the current claims in the Spratly Islands as well as China’s facilities there.
The territorial and continental shelf claims of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are shown with several overlapping lines. The map also gives rough locations for seven Chinese outposts, including three airfields, and 63 other outposts in the Spratlys.
China’s outposts “are capable of supporting military operations” and “have supported non-combat aircraft,” the Pentagon report says. “However, no large-scale presence of combat aircraft has been yet observed there.”
The report also says the missiles and other weapons systems at Chinese-controlled outposts are “the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by any claimant in the disputed South China Sea to date.”
Chinese military operations in the South China Sea are overseen by the Southern Theater Command, which is one of China’s largest and most important theater commands.
People’s Liberation Army ground, naval, and air forces are based along China’s southern coast, including on Hainan Island, which is home to major PLA bases and hosts a PLA Rocket Force missile brigade.
The Southern Theater Command and the adjacent Eastern Theater Command would be involved in any Chinese military operation against Taiwan. Recent action by those forces around Taiwan, as well as ongoing Chinese activity in the South China Sea, have worried US commanders.
“The PLA Army and the PLA Rocket Forces and the Strategic Support Forces are in dangerous position.” US Army Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of US Army Pacific, said at a think-tank event in February.
“They’re rehearsing, they’re exercising, they’re experimenting” in the region, Flynn said, citing the PLA’s activity around Taiwan following a visit by then-Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi in August and a high-altitude spy balloon that US officials say was launched from Hainan Island in late January and drifted over North America several days later.
Both were cases of “very irresponsible and aggressive behavior,” Flynn said. “The region sees that and they don’t like what they see.”
The Spratly Islands
The Spratlys are made up of islands, islets, submerged reefs, and other maritime features across roughly 158,000 square miles in the South China Sea between southern Vietnam and the Philippines.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have overlapping claims to some or all of the Spratlys. All but Brunei have deployed soldiers and fortifications to back up their claims. Those disputes have turned violent at times, including deadly skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and in 1988.
In recent years, China has turned some features it controls into fully developed artificial islands, adding over 3,200 acres of land to them, constructing ports, airstrips, bunkers, radars, and jamming stations, and deploying advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.
In 2020, China created a new administrative district for the Spratlys, putting them under the jurisdiction of the city of Sansha in Hainan.
China’s navy, coast guard, and maritime militia regularly patrol around the Spratlys and through the region, trying to back up its claims, often by harassing rivals.
Chinese vessels have blocked oil exploration and prevented Philippine supply vessels from restocking their own outposts. Chinese ships also maintain an almost continuous presence in disputed areas, especially Scarborough Shoal and Thitu Island.
Scarborough and Thitu, also known as Pag-asa Island, are the sites of some of the most contentious encounters between China and the Philippines. Manila won a legal victory over China in 2016, when a tribunal at the Hague ruled against many of China’s claims.
Among its holdings, the court said that the features in the Spratlys in question were not legally islands and thus did not grant China rights to territorial seas or exclusive economic zones. The court also held that China had violated the Philippines’ rights, including by interfering with fishing activity around Scarborough Shoal.
China continues to ignore the ruling and to pressure rival claimants, especially the Philippines.
In February, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel directed a “military-grade laser” at a Philippine Coast Guard ship sailing to an outpost in the Spratlys, temporarily blinding its crew. Weeks later, Chinese Coast Guard vessels demanded Philippine aircraft flying over the Spratlys leave what they called “Chinese territory.”
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