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Who Is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea? (A Rejoinder); By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0132/ 2015

Courtesy: The Diplomat

Greg Austin recently wrote in The Diplomat that Vietnam occupied 24 features in the South China Sea in 1996 and has  “increased [this number] from 30 to 48 in the last six years” as if these figures were facts. I doubt there is any plausibility to his claim. It would be more accurate to point out that Vietnam occupied most of these features in the 1970s after reunification. Whether Vietnam has doubled the number of its features since then is highly unlikely.

In a paper just presented to the 66th Current Strategy Forum at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, I wrote, “U.S. officials also claimed that Vietnam occupied forty-eight features in the South China Sea. When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited Hanoi this June he called on Vietnam to permanently halt all land reclamation activities on these features. His Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of National Defense General Phung Quang Thanh, argued that “land reclamation” was being undertaken to prevent soil erosion. General Thanh also argued that Vietnam stationed military personnel on nine “floating islands” and twelve “submerged islands” or a total of 21 features.”

I attached the following footnote to my paper, “’Floating islands’ refers to features that are above the water or which can be built from submerged islands by adding steel structures, soil, rocks and concrete. ‘Submerged islands’ are reefs that are underwater.”

The United States should have published a list of all 48 features that it claimed Vietnam was occupying. Also, the U.S. should have provided specific details about the extent and purpose of Vietnam’s “land reclamation. According to information received, the U.S. figure may include separate structures on the same reef. I would caution about jumping to conclusions before the facts are in. Vietnam’s so-called “land reclamation” represents 1.9% of the total area of China’s newly constructed artificial islands. Vietnam does not have dredging machines like China, it brings in soil from the mainland.

The litmus test for construction activities in the Spratlys is whether or not they violate the letter and spirit of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC calls on all parties to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.” It is implausible to suggest that Vietnam is – to use Austin’s emotive language – “the aggressor” on the basis of evidence presently available or to conjure up a threat from the tiny specks of features that Vietnam occupies.  China on the other hand placed self-propelled artillery on one of its features that is capable of shelling nearby Vietnamese-occupied features.

Has China shown “great restraint”?

In a paper presented in 2012, I wrote: China consolidated its military presence in the South China Sea by construction on several of the features it occupied. China seized Mischief Reef in 1995 and built its first structures in the South China Sea. These were expanded in October 1998 with the addition of three octagon-shaped wooden structures and two two-story concrete towers one at each end. The towers bristle with SATCOMM and HF antennae for communications. The towers are thought to house ELINT (electronic intelligence facilities) and radars. The facilities on Mischief Reef have since been upgraded with the construction of two new piers, a helicopter pad, a navy navigation radar, several anti-aircraft guns and an anti-ship cruise missile system (either the HY-2 or C-801).

A 200-foot long concrete building was constructed on Fiery Cross Reef. It houses a naval High Frequency (HF) yagi radar antenna (Bean Sticks), two Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) radomes, and several whip communication and mast antennas. The various antenna support different requirements, such as radio signal surveillance and Long Range (LR) communications. The facilities on Fiery Cross Reef also include satellite communication (SATCOMM) and meteorological dishes.

Chinese facilities on Johnson South Reef include four octagon-shaped huts and a rectangular two story building on a concrete base supporting two towers. One SATCOMM and three masthead antennas are mounted on the roof. Chigua Reef contains an identical building structure plus a wooden barracks. Subi Reef hosts a wooden barracks, a two story building with a SATCOMM antenna and a helicopter landing pad.

In summary, Chinese facilities in the South China Sea will give the PLAN an enhanced capability to exercise its sovereignty claims over this area. According to naval analysts, “Although small in size, if necessary these facilities could support future Chinese expansion throughout the area, and could perhaps even support a limited naval conflict in this congested region.”

This year China repeatedly ordered Philippine military aircraft flying over the South China Sea (as well as a U.S. Navy Poseidon 8) to leave a “military security area” or a “military alert zone” based on electronic and radar facilities on Fiery Cross.

China has removed Malaysian territorial markers from Luconia and Erica reefs and replaced them with Chinese markers. China currently stations a Coast Guard ship at James Shoal in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone so as to assert sovereignty over a feature that is twenty-two metres under water.

The basis for China’s claim to sovereignty rests on a cartographic slight of hand. China renamed James Shoal to sandbank when it modified the Nationalist government’s 1947 map of the South China Sea. China also has employed electronic jamming to interfere with the lawful operations of an Indonesian maritime law enforcement vessel that had apprehended Chinese fishermen caught poaching in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

China’s past track record in invading and seizing the Crescent group in the Parcels island in January 1974 from the Republic of Vietnam, and its March 1988 armed seizure of Johnson South and other nearby reefs from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam stand in contrast to the behavior of all other claimants.

China has now constructed a 3,110-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef that is capable of handling all types of military aircraft in China’s inventory. In the future China will be able to station up to thirty combat aircraft and a squadron of combat ships at Fiery Cross Reef.

The South China Sea will get more contested in the military domain as China develops its naval base on Hainan island and completes construction of forward operating bases on artificially constructed “islands” in the South China Sea. What more needs to be said?

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and Director of Thayer Consultancy registered in Australia. email:

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