Is Scarborough Shoal the Next to Fall to Beijing's South China Sea 'Salami Tactics'?
China has long wanted to take control of the South China Sea and it is one step closer to that goal as photographic evidence demonstrates that Beijing has just about completed its fortification of the disputed Spratly Islands with air and naval facilities on seven islands in the South China Sea. This has left observers wondering when Scarborough Shoal, off the coast of the Philippines, will be next.
Most experts agree that Chinese strategy in the South China Sea hinges on two key concerns, one protecting its trade routes from interdiction by foreign navies, and two to address naval weakness. China’s trade route through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and its maritime borders, including its arch enemy and ‘renegade province’ Taiwan are vulnerable to the control of foreign navies. And so, China took to dredging and building fortified islands on disputed reefs and coral to turn the South China Sea into a protected ‘Chinese lake.’ By controlling three disputed Island chains in the contested sea, the Paracels, Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal, China gains air, communications and intelligence coverage of the entire maritime region, the so-called “nine-dash line,” which outlines China’s historic claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Only Scarborough Shoal a piece of disputed marine real estate with the Philippines remains outside of China’s occupation. The question remains though for how long, with a Chinese naval presence in the area since a standoff in 2012.
To the North of the South China Sea, Beijing has an existing airfield on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain, seized from Vietnam, along with mobile HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles. As well, Triton Island in the Paracels saw construction of new buildings this year, including two large radar towers. Woody Island is China’s military headquarters in the disputed region and developments at Woody are usually a precursor to those at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. Woody has seen the deployment of J-10 and recently J-11B fighter planes meaning a deployment of fighter aircraft to the Spratlys is almost a certainty in the coming months.
To the South, the Peoples Liberation Army is putting the finishing touches on its fortification of Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Gaven, Johnson South, Mischief, Subi and Hughes Reef in the dispute Spratly Islands. The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and China all have overlapping claims on the Spratly Island chain, but Beijing has been the most aggressive at protecting and advancing its strategic interests. Runways for fighter aircraft, maritime patrol, and transport aircraft have been finished on the three biggest islands, Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reef. Additionally, Lighthouses, radar domes, hangars and multi-story buildings have been built on them along with tunnels and structures that might house anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems. On Cuarteron, Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson South Reef helipads, wind turbines, observation and communication towers have been erected. The Fiery Cross Reef features a three-kilometer-long runway and at least one missile system, likely the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile. The new runway facilities have concrete hangers for up to 24 fighter aircraft and five larger aircraft. A single-barrel 100 mm gun has reportedly been spotted on Gavin Reef.
Leaving the Northeastern point of the triangle, Scarborough Shoal, that gives China coverage and control of the South Chinas Sea, almost within its grasp. Scarborough Shoal a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks, covering an area of 150 kilometers, including an inner lagoon, and the next point in the region to be occupied by Chinese military forces and turned into a series of island fortifications. It is only 220 kilometers east of the main Philippine Island of Luzon, is claimed by the Philippine, Taiwan and Beijing and the Chinese Coast Guard controls access to the shoal. Chinese survey ships have been seen in the area likely in preparation for dredging operations. There are fears that China will send its newly-launched cutter suction dredger Tiankun, dubbed the ‘magic island-maker’, to create artificial islands in and around Scarborough Shoal. The 140 meters long and 28 meters wide Tiankun is believed capable of dredging up to 6,000 cubic meters an hour and can dig as deep as 35 meters under the sea floor and is the very tool the Chinese need to create a new island in the South China Sea at its eastern expanse.
Given US concerns and attention on the Korean peninsula, Beijing might be prepared for one last gamble in the region, where it has already paid the political and diplomatic price for its man-made islands. China’s ‘salami tactic’ approach to the South China Sea has worked thus far, with a slice of territory annexed, here and there, one piece at a time. First a fishing presence, then a Chinese Coast Guard station for vessels to ‘enhance navigation’ and protect the fishing vessels, and then a small military presence. The US, Taiwan and Philippines would likely object but not use force to remove the small ‘temporary military’ presence. Then the dredging begins, and a new island emerges to be fortified. China could bide its time to start fortifying the Scarborough shoal until the US and other states who claim the area including Taiwan and the Philippines lose interest and give up without a shot being fired. Chinese strategy has been painstakingly patient starting in 1974 with the seizure of the Paracels, and painfully successful. Will Scarborough Shoal be next?