24 April 2015

Runway to the Danger Zone? Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ

Andrew S. Erickson, “Runway to the Danger Zone? Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 24 April 2015.

Never underestimate Chinese engineering. First the Great Wall, then the Grand Canal, and now the Great Wall of Sand.

China is rapidly augmenting features in the South China Sea (SCS) on industrial scale—hundreds of acres (more than 4 square km)—that even its neighbors combined cannot match. “Features,” is the key word here, because many were previously small rocks or reefs not legally considered “islands.” Then China used some of the world’s largest dredgers to build up some of the most pristine coral reefs above water with hundreds of tons of sand, coral cuttings, and concrete. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris aptly terms China’s creation a “Great Wall of Sand.”

But it’s what China is constructing atop its reclamation that most concerns its neighbors and the United States: militarily relevant facilities, including runways, that could allow Beijing to exert increasing influence over the contested SCS.

“Great Wall of Sand” Growing Airstrips

Satellite imagery of Fiery Cross Reef shows over 1,300m of runway completed. The section of reclaimed land where this is occurring could support a runway up to 3,110m long. Fiery Cross is one of the seven features China occupies and is augmenting in the Spratly Islands. At another Spratly feature, Subi Reef, reclamation may also yield sufficient space for an airstrip of similar length. Internet fora have mentioned Mischief Reef as another possible candidate.

The Paracels—the SCS’s other major contested archipelago, likewise home to major Chinese “island building”—include Woody Island. There satellite photos suggest China recently expanded an existing 2,300m runway to 3,000m. Several three km Chinese airstrips may thus be emerging in the roiled SCS.

Contested Coral Reefs

Like many other SCS features, Fiery Cross Reef has long been contested by multiple parties (mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in this case). Using a UNESCO weather monitoring project as its justification, in 1987 China occupied Fiery Cross Reef, then submerged at high tide save for two small rocks. China initiated construction in early 1988, with a two-story cement structure appearing in 1990. By early 2014, facilities had grown to a ~200-personnel garrison and greenhouse for food production, a DP-65 grenade launcher, a wharf and helipad, and communications equipment. Fiery Cross served as a center for logistics and reclamation for China’s other Spratly features.

Starting in August 2014, a major new construction project began that is estimated to have cost nearly $12 billion thus far. Dredgers expanded Fiery Cross eleven-fold, to dimensions of 3,000+m by 200-300m (nearly 1 square km). This suggests that it is now the largest Spratly “island,” more than three times larger than Taiping Island (Itu Aba), occupied by Taiwan. Development continues, with at least four cement plants operating in different locations to facilitate rapid construction, more than eighty buildings erected, and five new piers established.

Military Applications

Beijing itself has stated officially that there will be military uses for the new “islands” it has raised from the sea. On March 9, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that Spratly garrison “maintenance and construction work” was intended in part for “better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” Hua elaborated that construction was designed in part to “satisfy the necessary military defense needs.” Chinese military sources employ similar wording.

The likely translation, in concrete terms:

  • better facilities for personnel stationed on the features
  • port facilities for logistics, maritime militia, coast guard, and navy ships
  • a network of radars to enable monitoring of most of the SCS
  • air defense missiles
  • airstrips for civilian and military aircraft

Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear’s April 15 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee supports this assessment: In addition to basing Chinese Coast Guard ships to expand influence over a contested area, “expanded land features down there also could eventually lead to the deployment of things, such as long-range radars, military and advanced missile systems and it might be a platform for them, if they ever wanted to establish an air defense… zone… for them to be able to enforce that from.” 

Beijing contends that its SCS island building activities are primarily for non-military purposes. On April 17, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei listed “fulfilling the Chinese side’s assumption of international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and disaster reduction, ocean scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production and services, and in other areas.” Beijing touts this brief list as representing unusual transparency on its part: “As a friendly gesture, the Chinese government has also disclosed the full details of the construction work on its territory to reassure its neighbors and remove understandings.” 

Having reiterated this list, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai asserts, “China’s construction of military facilities in the area ‘is only natural and necessary’ and that they are purely for defensive purposes.” He reasons without explanation, “If these facilities could not even defend themselves, how can they render service to others? If China could not safeguard its own sovereignty, how can it shoulder greater responsibilities for international stability?” Left unaddressed: what foreign force would seek to disrupt China’s provision of positive public goods?

Moreover, since the PLA is superior to China’s Foreign Ministry in rank and only reports to one civilian—Xi himself—Cui may well not have the last word on this matter. It is worth remembering that for days after China’s January 11, 2007 anti-satellite test, China’s Foreign Ministry had nothing to say on the matter.

Possible Military Aviation Applications

A 3,000 m runway could support operations of most major military aircraft. In China’s case: a wide variety of fighter, electronic intercept, airborne early warning and control, and tanker aircraft.[1]

J-11 fighters might be prioritized for their multirole versatility. A 1,300 m runway is long enough to allow for comprehensive J-11 operations, including even emergency stop at near takeoff velocity during aborted takeoff—albeit with very little margin for error in case of problems.[2]

Forward deployment of at least some such aircraft could support serious patrols of southern SCS airspace in a way that China would have found difficult from preexisting land. This could also offer new deterrence and warfighting options, particularly in a region with few formidable air forces.

Supporting and fueling the aircraft would be logistically demanding, but well within China’s capabilities. Corrosion from saltwater spray could be mitigated by rotating deployment of aircraft, washing them regularly, and ideally protecting them in hangars—possibly in simpler versions of the accommodations that B-2s enjoy on Diego Garcia. Fuel could be stored in tanks or even in cheaper bladders; although the latter are less practical for long-term storage, especially on coral-based ground with sharp projections. Fuel storage might be easiest simply in tanker boats, anchored off SCS islands. All such stockpiles would be vulnerable to attack, but so are small features in general. Principal relevant aircraft weapons—primarily PL-series air-to-air missiles—are small and light, and hence easily stored. There may be some competition between China’s navy and air force for control of operations, with the navy likely to retain the upper hand given its preexisting overwater intercept role. From the ill-fated EP-3 surveillance aircraft in 2001 to a U.S. P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft in 2014, it is Chinese naval aircraft that have intercepted them—sometimes with risky aggressiveness—in international airspace over the SCS.

What For?

One logical application for China’s current activities: to support a SCS Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Beijing already established an ADIZ in the East China Sea in November 2013. Many nations—including the U.S.—have established such zones to track aircraft approaching their territorial airspace (out to 12 nautical miles from their coast), particularly aircraft apparently seeking to enter that space.

Radars on China-controlled features can form a network providing maritime/air domain awareness for the majority of the SCS. Fighter aircraft can allow China to intercept foreign aircraft it detects operating there, particularly those that do not announce their presence, or otherwise engage in behaviors that Beijing deems objectionable.

But while any coastal state is legally entitled to announce an ADIZ, the way in which China has done so in the East China Sea is worrisome. China threatens still-unspecified “defensive emergency measures” if foreign aircraft don’t comply with its orders—orders that an ADIZ does not give it license to issue or enforce physically. This suggests that China is reserving the “right” to treat international airspace beyond 12 nautical miles as “territorial airspace” in important respects.

China’s record on maritime sovereignty fuels this concern. The vast majority of nations agree that under international law a country with a coastline controls only economic resources in waters 12 to 200 nautical miles out—and even less if facing a neighbor’s coast less than 400 nm away. But China claims rights to control military activities in that “Exclusive Economic Zone” as well.

In addition, China currently lacks long-range capable anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets akin to U.S. P-3 and P-8 aircraft. The more “islands” it builds, even if only with helicopter pads (as opposed to full runways), the more it can increase helicopter-based ASW coverage of the South China Sea. In this way, distribution of Chinese-held features could compensate for ASW helicopters’ “short legs.” In this way, China could attempt to start to negate one of the last remaining major U.S. Navy advantages—submarines—and possibly pursue a bastion strategy for its SSBNs in the SCS.

Why Now?

Several factors offer reason to believe that Beijing will declare a SCS ADIZ of some sort by January 20, 2017.

First, Xi Jinping’s own widely supported goals include rapidly transforming China into a “great maritime power.” Embodying Chinese leadership consensus, Xi views this transformation as vital for China’s comprehensive national development and ascent to great power status as part of China’s national rejuvenation. To this end, he calls for Beijing to “strategically manage the sea.” Xi’s directives and vigorous implementation have important implications for the SCS specifically. The “three million-square kilometers of blue territory” invoked frequently by Chinese officials and civilians alike includes nearly 90 percent of the combined area of the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. As the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence documents, China “has never published the coordinates of” the Nine-Dash Line that it draws around virtually the entire SCS—perilously close to the coasts of its neighbors, all of whom it has disputes with. It has not “declared what rights it purports to enjoy in this area.” 

Regardless, the SCS clearly contains Beijing’s broadest and most numerous claims. And Xi has charged Chinese forces with The Middle Kingdom has deployed some of its most advanced forces, including three nuclear ballistic missile submarines in this theater, which will only become more important as China becomes increasingly active in and over the trade- and energy-rich sea lanes crisscrossing Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Second, China wants to punish the Philippines with “facts on the ground” for bringing their bilateral territorial dispute to an international tribunal with a ~7,000-page submission before that body hands down a judgment—which Beijing will almost certainly reject categorically. 

While the exact timing remains unclear, the tribunal could conceivably issue a judgment by mid-2015. “It is clear to us that China is accelerating its expansionist agenda and changing the status quo to actualize its ‘nine-dash line’ claim and to control nearly the entire South China Sea,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario states, “before the conclusion of the Code of Conduct and the handing down of a decision of the arbitral tribunal on the Philippine submission.” 

Third, Xi and other Chinese leaders unfortunately appear to believe that the U.S. has few good options below the threshold of military intervention, and that the Obama Administration is weak and distracted. These assumptions seem to favor making rapid progress now to present a future U.S. president—such as Hillary Clinton, whom Chinese observers fear could be tougher than both her current competitors and potential predecessor—with a fait accompli.

For all these reasons, China’s neighbors and the U.S. worry increasingly that Beijing intends to assert similar creeping control over the waters and airspace of SCS—one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes, yet home to numerous island and maritime claims disputes.

Chinese Restraint?

It is to be hoped that the above concerns are unfounded, and that Beijing decides instead to exercise restraint. On April 9, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated, “We are concerned by the scope and pace of China’s land reclamation activities, which are inconsistent with China’s own past commitments to ASEAN countries. We are especially concerned at the prospect of militarization of these outposts. These activities seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions. We urge China to limit its activities and exercise restraint to improve regional trust.” Philippines Foreign Secretary Del Rosario has called on China to halt unilateral actions that he charges violate international laws and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. “Such actions undermine efforts to pursue the peaceful, rules-based resolution of disputes in the South China Sea and to promote regional stability.” 

There are many highly visible, verifiable ways in which Beijing could demonstrate restraint. The South China Morning Post inadvertently offered one example when it paraphrased Chinese Ambassador Cui as stating at the International Conference on China-U.S. Cooperation in Global Security Affairs that China is “building its first airstrip on the Spratly Islands only to provide supply and maintenance for passing ships.” Unfortunately, the Hong Kong-based newspaper got the wording wrong. Maritime specialist Isaac Kardon, who was in the room taking careful notes, has explained to the author that Cui actually said, “Reclamation work is well within China’s sovereignty.” Cui described such work as mostly intended to provide services for vessels, but insisted that China cannot provide those services without self-defense capabilities. “So of course there will be military facilities” on the Spratlys, Cui concluded.

For years, China was indeed the only Spratly claimant save Brunei not to have an airstrip on the islands—Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all led in this regard. On Taiping Island (Itu Aba), Taiwan maintains the 1,200 m military-only Taiping Island Airport. The sole current use is bimonthly resupply and personnel transport via C-130 aircraft. It lacks refueling facilities, but may soon be lengthened to facilitate operations in rainy weather. Malaysia’s Layang-Layang Airport on heavily-reclaimed Swallow Reef (with a 1,367 m concrete runway) accommodates both civil and military aircraft. On Thitu Island (Pagasa), the Philippines has the unpaved 1300m Rancudo Airfield. Finally, on Truong Sa Island, Vietnam has a 610 m airstrip capable of accommodating a small fixed-wing propeller aircraft and a helipad.

China’s lack of a Spratly airfield for many years was arguably a form of restraint, which Chinese leaders believe was not reciprocated by other parties. Given its superior power and deployment of capabilities in so many other areas, however, Beijing’s sense of victimhood here seems overwrought. The author is reminded of a song from his earlier days as a camp counselor in rural Vermont:

Way down South where bananas grow

An ant stepped on an elephant’s toe

The elephant cried with tears in his eyes

Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?

In any case, by any measure China is now leaving all other SCS claimants far behind in island and facilities construction. Its limitations vis-à-vis its neighbors in all respects have now passed firmly into history.

Nevertheless, China is hardly the only nation to portray its capabilities and intentions in the best possible light—all do to some degree. That’s why it’s important to watch actual activities—in this case, particularly, airstrip construction. For airstrips, after structural integrity, it’s length that matters most. There’s no need for a 3,000 m runway to support evacuation of personnel for medical or weather emergencies via turboprop and other civilian aircraft. Such a runway is only need to support a full range of military options. Building a separate taxiway alongside, as China is doing at Fiery Cross, suggests plans for high tempo, high sortie rate military operations. Occasional activities of the type mistakenly attributed to Ambassador Cui do not require a taxiway; aircraft can simply backtrack on the runway.

It’s reasons like these that satellite photos documenting runway development continue to attract international attention, as well they should.

Why This All Matters, Greatly

Worries about Chinese construction in the SCS exemplify broader foreign concern about China’s rise: that as it becomes increasingly powerful, Beijing will:

  • abandon previous restraint in word and deed
  • bully its smaller neighbors
  • implicitly or explicitly threaten the use of force to resolve disputes
  • and attempt to change—or else run roughshod over—important international norms that preserve peace in Asia and underwrite the global system on which mutual prosperity depends

China has many options to allay such fears, but typically declines to use them. Official responses to reasonable questions are often self-righteous but opaque.

Prime example: On March 9, Spokeswoman Hua said this when asked about China’s construction on Spratly features—some of which were seized forcibly from Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and many of which remain disputed: “The relevant construction is a matter within the scope of China’s sovereignty, which is reasonable, justified and lawful. It does not affect or target any country, and is thus beyond reproach.” Hua cautioned against making “indiscreet remarks on China’s normal activities on its own territory.”

But, as journalist Frank Ching points out, in one of the many op-eds trumpeting China’s positions, Foreign Minister Wang Yi “did not explain why, when there is a dispute over territorial sovereignty, the world should always accept China’s claims as being beyond dispute while other countries are presumed to be acting illegally.” Ching rightly observers, “China refuses to accept mechanisms provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for judicial arbitration.”

Ching identifies a key problem with Beijing’s insistence on bilateral negotiation: “Mr Wang and the government that he represents insists that the only choice the small, weak, militarily insignificant countries of South-east Asia have is to hold one-on-one negotiations with China, whose military budget is the second biggest in the world and which has the world’s largest Coast Guard fleet, with more patrol vessels than Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia combined.” To this may be added that Beijing has the world’s second largest economy and 205 maritime law enforcement vessels to Jakarta’s 8, Manila’s 4, and Kuala Lumpur’s 2

And yet, as Ching emphasizes, it is Wang and his government that liken neighbors’ Spratly construction to “illegal construction in another person’s [China’s] house,” while calling on the international community to “reaffirm their commitment to maintaining world peace and international rule of law [and to] reject the law of the jungle where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.” These gaping contradictions must not pass unquestioned.

While willfully ignoring such reasonable points, however, Beijing’s propaganda organs continually complain about a “China Threat Theory” because foreigners do not accept unquestioningly that China’s intentions are always peaceful. State media appears tone deaf, publishing op-eds with titles like, “Is Obama really ‘concerned’ or stirring concern” and deriding his “funny theory about China being a bully in the SCS.” Such a “theory” is hardly discredited when a Xinhua writer declares in China Daily, “It is in the best interests of all parties involved in the SCS issue to find a peaceful solution on their own, instead of being dictated to by an outside power that could easily escape unscathed….” A headline stock phrase: “Washington’s trick of ‘thief crying stop thief’ on SCS.” 

And these are the English-language pieces intended to win foreign hearts and minds—you should see some of the Chinese-language ones if you haven’t already! Constant subjection to boilerplate like this may be one reason why many Western China analysts are perceived to be taking a harder, more skeptical line toward Beijing of late. One can only imagine how their Chinese counterparts would react if official U.S. venues began constantly blasting such one-sided vitriol while repressing dissenting voices. One thing’s for sure: Chinese mouthpieces would undoubtedly trot out another threadbare meme and describe it as “offending the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people.”

China “is not necessarily abiding by international law and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions,” President Obama stated on April 9. “Just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.” 

But they can be, increasingly, if Washington doesn’t find better ways to cooperate with its allies and partners in the region; maintain a robust, effective presence there; and impose actual costs for Chinese behaviors that it opposes. Otherwise, U.S. policy will be perceived as adrift in an increasingly stormy sea. And the kind of world most people want to see will increasingly be replaced by one in which money and might even more make right, with even fewer restraints for the strong, and even less recourse for the weak.

 NOTES:

The author thanks Chris Carlson and an anonymous aviation expert for runway-related insights. Italics within quotations are supplied by the author to emphasize the most important portions.

[1] An H-6 bomber would require a longer runway for normal operations. A Russian equivalent is the Tu-16K, a missile shooter, with a maximum takeoff run of 2,200m. For an H-6, the landing run is 1,300m with the parachute, 1,750m without the chute. The problem with this distance is that even a 3,000m airstrip has insufficient runway length for emergency braking in case something goes wrong. An H-6 would thus be unlikely to land on a 3,000m runway, except potentially under wartime conditions. Yefim Gordon and Vladimir Rigmant, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger: Versatile Soviet Long-Range Bomber (UK: Midland Publishing, 2004).

[2] By this metric, both Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef can already support J-11 landing and takeoff by generous margins, although any remaining construction areas would have to be secured in a manner that prevented foreign object damage (FOD) to jet engines. By U.S. standards a takeoff run is defined as the horizontal distance along the takeoff path from the start of the takeoff to a point equidistant between the point at which VLOF (lift off velocity) is reached and the point at which the airplane is 35 feet above the takeoff surface. This applies under dry conditions; distances lengthen under wet conditions. Normal takeoff run for the Su-27/30 is 450 to 550m at normal takeoff weight using full afterburner. This is largely an air defense load out and is about 11,000 kg less than max takeoff weight. Landing distance with parachute is 620-750m. These parameters apply roughly to China’s J-11, which is largely derived from Russia’s Su-27. Yefim Gordon, Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker: Air Superiority Fighter (UK: Airlife Publishing Inc., 1999); “Sukhoi JSC Military Aircraft Su-27SK Aircraft Performance,” http://www.sukhoi.org/eng/planes/military/su27sk/lth/; “Sukhoi JSC Military Aircraft Su-30MK Aircraft Performance,” http://www.sukhoi.org/eng/planes/military/su30mk/lth/.

  • Tim

    Of course the headline news scream of China augmenting
    features in the South China Sea. Where is the news while Vietnam has been doing same thing in disputed waters for years?