China’s island outposts in the China Seas could prove to be difficult targets during wartime. American military planners shouldn’t assume otherwise, warned Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Couldn’t the United States easily neutralize these remote outposts in a conflict, negating their value?” Poling wrote at War on the Rocks. “The assumption is understandable given how seemingly remote the facilities are and how accustomed Americans have become to uncontested dominance over the sea and air.”
“But it is flawed,” Poling explained. The outposts could absorb more munitions than U.S. forces could afford to devote to their suppression.
China, not the United States, would control the sea and air space of the South China Sea at the outbreak of hostilities thanks to its artificial island bases. And given current American force posture in the region, it would be prohibitively costly for the United States to neutralize those outposts during the early stages of a conflict.
That would make the South China Sea a no-man’s land for most U.S. forces (submarines excepted) during the critical early stages of any conflict — giving the islands considerable military value for Beijing.
Environmental conditions, rather than American missiles, might pose the greatest danger to the island bases.
Since 2013 the Chinese government has dredged and mostly destroyed ecologically delicate reefs in disputed waters in order to build seven major military bases complete with ports, airstrips and radar and missile installations.
The islands function as unsinkable aircraft carriers and help to cement Beijing’s claims on waters rich with fish and minerals, waters that neighboring countries also claim.
“If the terraforming no longer makes headlines, it is because it is largely complete,” The Economist stated.
Perhaps the most important installations sit on the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly island group. Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all also claim the Spratlys.
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