ISDA – China’s decision to set up a military garrison on Sansha on the Yongxing Island (also known as Woody Island) in the Paracel chain along with creating a city administration could be seen as a step in firstly expanding its military reach, secondly strengthening its claims in the South China Sea, and thirdly countering the US rebalance towards the region.
Militarily, an established base could provide ‘depth’ to China in terms of defence, offence and increase in its surveillance range. The distance of around 350 km from Hainan and its geographical location in the North West of the South China Sea region provides the island a strategic location. It could effectively extend ‘Lines of Operation’ well south of Hainan and mainland China thereby enabling China to exploit the dictums of ‘sustainability’ and ‘reach’ both in the maritime and air domains in the disputed area.
Therefore, this island could well become China’s Diego Garcia in the South China Sea. There are some similarities between Yongxing Island and Diego Garcia that merit attention.
The runway on Yongxing is around 8,200 feet long and will enable operations of Chinese fighters such as the Sukhoi SU-30MKK. The map below indicates the area that can be covered by the combat radius of JH-7 and SU-30 aircraft operating from the island. Extension of the combat radius arcs shown in the map into a full circle indicates that China would be able to cover the full area of the South China Sea. Even though the runway juts out into the sea, there is the possibility of extending the runway by reclamation. This would depend on the topography and depth of water. The runway at Diego Garcia is around 12,000 feet long and has supported US operations in and around the Indian Ocean as well as other theatres.
The naval base at Yongxing has over the years been upgraded with the construction of a jetty of around 1640 feet and an anti-wave dike to protect ships berthed there. There are also, apparently, no limitations due to the depth for anchorage of large vessels like destroyers and frigates. The depth available could be increased for anchoring or berthing of larger ships by dredging. Diego Garcia supports both ships and submarines and both the anchorage and jetty are protected as they are situated in the lagoon.
The islands around Yongxing, which are under Chinese control, could be used as a station for monitoring maritime activities and also for intelligence gathering. Satellite pictures taken in 2008 revealed the presence of antennae indicating that the Chinese had set up a listening and monitoring station . Radars would add to the network and make these islands a valuable communication node similar to Diego Garcia.
Till the time facilities are not constructed for basing of adequate numbers of ships and aircraft, the island could be used as a forward operating base. These facilities would include bunkering, ammunition depots, logistic and medical support, repair and maintenance, and accommodation. Although the number of assets would be limited due to space constraints, it would nevertheless be a valuable outpost. This much that can be inferred from the statement of Zhang Zhexin, a US studies expert with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, who said that “China will certainly continue reinforcing its political and military control over Sansha as it has drawn lessons from maritime disputes in the past .”
Although the Chinese forward presence is considered ‘militarily untenable ’, it is highly unlikely that any one regional country has the capability of physically stopping China’s augmentation of infrastructure without engaging in a skirmish or military stand-off. They are at best likely to engage in rhetoric and lodging strong diplomatic protests. Any attempt to counter this action of China by means of pausing engagement or dialogue would only paralyse the progress made so far, no matter how miniscule. Efforts to increase aid and military assistance to the regional countries could also result in China hardening its stance.
As per Article 121 of UNCLOS which covers island regimes, an island would have to sustain human habitation or economic life in order to have an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. While the limited land mass of Yongxing may not be able to sustain any such activity, the proximity of rich fishing grounds and potential oil fields would prompt China to stake a claim for the island’s maritime zones as per article 121. These maritime zones also include a territorial sea and contiguous zone. The mathematics are interesting as the land mass of around 13 square kilometres would accord jurisdiction over 2 million square kilometres of waters. This would push the 200 nautical mile limit of China’s EEZ (stipulated as per UNCLOS – see map below) outwards.
The inability of the ASEAN ministerial meeting to issue a joint communiqué at the recently concluded meeting of foreign ministers is indicative of the weakness of the concerned nations to join hands and take a multilateral stance. This helps China in its quest for bilateralism , an aspect covered by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin during a press conference on July 10, 2012  prior to the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting thus:
“The South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and ASEAN, but one between China and some ASEAN countries……. China is ready to peacefully resolve the South China Sea disputes through dialogue and negotiation with countries directly involved.”
Therefore, it is possible that China, taking advantage of the situation, is looking at an ‘island hopping’ strategy to strengthen its claims and presence in the region. Should China decide to set up similar cities and jurisdictions on other islands that it controls, it could cover its entire South China Sea claim as well as strengthen its presence in the area. This would complicate the US rebalancing strategy.