Why a South China Sea Diplomatic Breakthrough Is Unlikely

How to Respond to Beijing's Continued Military Buildup

An aerial view of China-occupied Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea territory, April 2017.  Francis Malasig / REUTERS

On December 30, Chinese state television broadcast aerial footage of the country’s facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The video was the first ever to show close-up images of the entirety of the substantial naval and air base on the disputed reef in the Spratly Islands. Earlier that month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative had released satellite imagery documenting the construction of aircraft hangars, missile shelters, signals intelligence facilities, and other military infrastructure on Fiery Cross, as well as Mischief and Subi Reefs, throughout 2017. But the aerial footage highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in a visceral way that satellite imagery could not. It should have served as a wake-up call in both Manila and Washington that Beijing has not changed its long-term strategy of employing coercion and, if need be, military force to establish dominance over the South China Sea. Despite diplomatic niceties and largely unrealistic talk of a code of conduct (COC) with fellow claimants, China’s actions undermine the narrative that it is serious about finding an equitable diplomatic solution to the disputes any time soon.


In the Philippines, the footage of Fiery Cross Reef sparked concern in the press and drew a confused response from the government. On January 8, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said that the placement of troops or weapons systems on Chinese-occupied reefs would be a violation of Beijing’s 2015 pledge (made by Chinese President Xi Jinping to U.S. President Barack Obama) not to militarize its outposts in the Spratlys. Lorenzana said that if such a move proved true, he would ask the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs to make a diplomatic protest in response. But a day later, Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed the idea that China had done anything wrong. He insisted that Beijing was acting in “good faith” so long as it did not undertake reclamation on currently unoccupied islands and reefs,

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