An aerial view of China-occupied Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea territory, April 2017.
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, suggesting that a continued buildup on the seven Spratlys it already occupied was fine with Manila. These contradictory answers as to whether China had violated its commitments underscored an ongoing debate within the Philippines, and throughout much of Southeast Asia, over how to gauge Beijing’s intention.

The January 17 innocent passage of the USS Hopper through the territorial sea of Scarborough Shoal provoked a similar difference of opinion. The passage marked the first freedom of navigation operation near the shoal, control of which China seized from the Philippines in 2012, since the Freedom of Navigation Program’s application in the South China Sea began attracting widespread attention in late 2015. In response, Roque called the matter a U.S.-China issue and said the Philippines wanted no part in it, despite claiming Scarborough Shoal as part of its territory. Lorenzana, on the other hand, was quick to defend the operation as entirely legal.  

The inauguration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016 provided an opportunity that China gladly seized. The ideologically anti-American Duterte quickly moved to shelve the landmark July 2016 arbitral award, which deemed Beijing’s vast claims to historic rights in the South China Sea illegal and confirmed Manila’s exclusive rights within the waters and seabed granted to it by international law. He also announced a “separation” of his country from the United States on military and economic policy while seeking closer ties with China. So far, he has been constrained from moving this agenda too far by the military and civilian bureaucracies, members of the Philippine Congress, and public opinion, which remains broadly pro-American and distrustful of China. Still, he continues to push a policy of rapprochement with Beijing—one in which Manila keeps quiet on points of disagreement in exchange for as-yet-unfulfilled promises of increased investment and a peaceful management of disputes.

Since the fall of 2016, Beijing has extended a diplomatic olive branch to many Southeast Asian states and avoided provoking major new standoffs in the South China Sea. In May 2017, China’s foreign ministry announced that negotiators had reached agreement on a draft “framework” for a South China Sea COC between China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The foreign ministers of the 11 negotiating countries officially adopted the one-page framework in August 2017 and hope to start negotiations on the COC itself in March 2018. Tensions remain in China’s relationships with Indonesia, the Philippines, and, especially, Vietnam, but they have undeniably eased. The question is whether that progress marks a long-term strategic shift by Beijing or merely a tactical adjustment before the next round of escalation. In other words, is China really acting in good faith?


The debate between China skeptics and those promoting accommodation is not a uniquely Philippine phenomenon. It is happening in all nations that have a major role in the South China Sea disputes, including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and even the United States. After nearly a decade of steady escalation and no real prospects for resolving the maritime disputes, the allure of a sudden diplomatic breakthrough, however unlikely, and the willingness to bank on Chinese good faith to make it happen are understandable. The alternative would be to prepare for another years-long slog of rising military tensions, sporadic clashes, and diplomatic naming and shaming, with no guarantee of successful resolution.

Unfortunately, the facts do not support the hypothesis that China is prepared to forego military coercion and cut a fair deal with its neighbors. Over the course of 2017, while talking up diplomatic efforts its fellow claimants, China built facilities covering about 72 acres, or 290,000 square meters, of land in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands. The largest of its outposts in the Spratlys, on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs, now sport large underground facilities to store the water, fuel, and ammunition necessary for substantial naval and air bases. Each of the outposts is bristling with new radars, sensors, and other signals intelligence capabilities to ensure that nothing moves in the South China Sea without Beijing’s knowledge. Operations by People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighter jets and military transport planes in the Paracels in October and November of last year presaged things to come in the Spratlys, where 72 hangars for fighter jets and about a dozen for larger aircraft are awaiting the first deployments. And hardened shelters stand ready to house the mobile missile platforms that will protect these offensive capabilities from retaliation by the United States or regional parties.

The facts do not support the hypothesis that China is prepared to forego military coercion and cut a fair deal with its neighbors.

Nor did China remain entirely placid while improving its military bases in 2017. In August, Beijing deployed a flotilla of military and civilian ships off Philippines-occupied Thitu Island, which houses about 100 civilians, in response to the landing of Filipino fishers on an unoccupied sand cay nearby. Chinese operators had previously warned away a plane carrying Lorenzana on a visit to the island in April, insisting he was flying through Chinese airspace. At the time, the defense secretary responded by brushing off the incident, telling the press that it happens whenever a Philippine plane lands on Thitu. Also in April, personnel aboard a China Coast Guard vessel reportedly shot at Filipino fishers near an unoccupied disputed reef. Throughout the year, China Coast Guard vessels maintained a regular presence at Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia and at Scarborough Shoal, where Filipino fishers were allowed to operate around the reef under the watchful eye (and occasional harassment) of Chinese personnel but not enter the cordoned off lagoon controlled by China. Most worryingly, in July the Chinese government reportedly threatened military force to prevent Vietnam from moving forward with oil and gas drilling by a Spanish company, Repsol, on Vanguard Bank—a piece of the seabed at the southern edge of China’s vague “nine-dash line,” which it uses to demarcate its maritime claim. Hanoi was forced to suspend Repsol’s contract after it had already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on exploration and drilling.

Policymakers such as Roque and Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano have ignored or explained away these instances of coercive behavior and continued militarization because they consider them relatively unimportant when weighed against the prospect of finally negotiating a COC. With a framework agreement in hand and talks expected to begin in March, that sentiment is understandable but premature. The framework agreement amounts to a single page of generalities and ellipses. It does not touch upon any of the most difficult issues that need to be reconciled for a COC to be effective, and China has given no indication that it is prepared to compromise on any of them.

Much debate has surrounded whether Beijing will agree to make the COC legally binding—something which is not discussed in the framework but seems integral to an effective agreement. But that is not necessarily the most difficult issue to resolve, nor the most important. For instance, there is no indication that states are on the same page about where the COC will apply. Will it encompass the Paracels as well as the Spratlys? What about places such as Vanguard Bank that only China sees as disputed? Official discussions have not even begun to touch on details such as fisheries management, joint development of oil and gas, environmental protection, or law enforcement in disputed waters. How will states reconcile China’s claim to historic rights with their own domestic and international laws? And how will disagreements over interpretation of the code be resolved?

None of these issues are unsolvable, but even if all the parties are committed to working them out, reconciling them will likely take years. In the decade and a half since China and the ASEAN states signed the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in 2002, they have made no appreciable progress on any of these topics. Difficult issues were not even included in the framework negotiations last year because they would have made it impossible to reach the parties’ self-imposed midyear deadline. To break this logjam and reach an effective agreement in a reasonable time frame—for instance in the few years left before a devastating fisheries collapse takes place in the South China Sea—would require a radical shift in positions and a willingness to make broad concessions. This is especially true for China and its far-reaching but ambiguous claim to historic rights.

Unfortunately, it is hard to reconcile the idea that such will might exist in Beijing with the continued military buildup and coercive tactics seen throughout 2017. The most optimistic conclusion is that China’s government is of two minds on the South China Sea—willing to flirt with diplomatic efforts while simultaneously seeking dominance over its neighbors through military and paramilitary means. The more cynical view is that the diplomatic outreach of the last year and a half has been primarily a delaying tactic meant to distract Southeast Asian claimants and deflect external criticism while Beijing prepares for the next cycle of military escalation.


Across Asian capitals and in Washington, pragmatists would welcome a sudden diplomatic breakthrough, but it would be a mistake to count on China’s good faith amid so many negative signs. The chances of concluding an effective COC in the short term appear dim. Meanwhile, it seems likely that Chinese combat aircraft will soon begin operating regularly from air bases in the Spratly Islands, working in tandem with an ever-growing naval and paramilitary presence to enforce Beijing’s claims at the expense of those of its neighbors.

Since 2016, China has steadily increased its power projection capabilities throughout the nine-dash line while the relative positions of Southeast Asian claimants and outside parties like the United States have eroded. In Manila, the defense secretary and other cool heads have mitigated the worst impulses of those determined to pursue détente with China at any cost. This has included salvaging the defense relationship with the United States, at least partially in preparation for the day when China’s aggressive pursuit of its claims leads to a new round of standoffs and clashes.

For its part, the Trump administration’s narrow focus on the current crisis in North Korea has left little time or energy for tackling a future crisis in the South China Sea. The State Department has reduced the issue to a secondary concern in diplomatic engagements with regional partners, and the White House has made no effort to formulate a whole-of-government strategy on the disputes. The Department of Defense has regularized freedom of navigation operations, but that has little effect in isolation. The U.S. military is returning to a regular tempo of training and joint exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and continues to provide funds for capacity building. But the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in 2014 to give U.S. forces limited access to Philippine bases, is being only partially implemented and is unlikely to enable a credible U.S. response to Chinese deployments in the Spratlys.

The evidence suggests that China is poised for new escalations in the South China Sea, which should serve as a wake-up call for governments in the Philippines and across the region. That will present both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States, but so far Washington is doing too little to prepare for either. To credibly deter China from using force, or even the threat of force as a coercive measure, against the Philippines, the United States will need to have combat aircraft and other assets forward deployed in the country. That means getting EDCA back on track, especially by convincing the Duterte government to follow through on plans to allow upgrades at all five previously agreed-upon bases, reverse its decision to ban the storage of ammunition at them, and permit a regular schedule of U.S. combat aircraft rotations. It is also time for the U.S. government to publicly state that its commitment to defend Philippine troops, ships, and planes from attack under Article V of the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty applies to contested waters and islands in the South China Sea. That clarification would not only reassure the Duterte government that the United States would actually back the Philippines when needed but would act as a strong deterrent to Chinese aggression.

A credible U.S. deterrent in the Philippines combined with regular U.S. operations in the South China Sea and sustained funding for capacity building and joint training for all the Southeast Asian claimants is necessary to prevent Chinese dominance by coercion in the short term. There is no military solution to the disputes, however, and any long-term U.S. strategy needs to be driven by the White House and the State Department, not the Pentagon. That means a multi-year, interagency effort to support Southeast Asian claimants, rally international support, and name and shame China. But first, the United States will need to reassure the region that it has not lost sight of the issue’s importance, and will not in the future. For starters, U.S. officials should begin giving the South China Sea as much attention as North Korea during diplomatic engagements with ASEAN states and other regional partners. They should also make clear during public statements that U.S. interests in the dispute are not limited to its ability to “fly, sail, and operate” in those waters—which by itself means little to regional states—but, just as important, include the security of partners and allies and the defense of rules-based order in the face of Chinese revisionism.

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  • GREGORY POLING is Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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