NavWeek: China Coastal Catch

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China last year accelerated its plans to “reclaim” areas like the Spratly Islands, and the Asian giant is banking on its coast guard to protect its disputed maritime stakes in the region, according to the Pentagon.

“In 2014, China engaged in an extensive land reclamation effort at five of its outposts in the Spratly Islands,” the Pentagon says in its annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” released earlier this month.

“As of late December 2014, China had reclaimed about 500 acres of land as part of this effort,” the Pentagon says in a section of the report, titled: “China’s Reclamation in the South China Sea.” At four reclamation sites, China shifted from “land reclamation operations to infrastructure development,” and delivered scores of heavy construction equipment to all five reclamation sites, the Pentagon says.

“Although it is unclear what will ultimately be built on these expanded outposts, they could include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics support, and at least one airfield,” the Pentagon says.

“At reclamation sites in the infrastructure phase of development, China excavated deep channels and built new berthing areas to allow access for larger ships to the outposts,” the Pentagon says. “The ultimate purpose of the expansion projects remains unclear and the Chinese Government has stated these projects are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands. However, most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to change facts on the ground by improving its defense infrastructure in the South China Sea. No Chinese-occupied outpost in the Spratly Islands has an airfield or secure docking, unlike other claimant nations.”

Taiwan began a modest land reclamation effort at Itu Aba Island in April 2014 and to date has reclaimed at least five acres of land near the island’s airstrip, the Pentagon says. According to regional press reporting, Taiwan is building a $100 million port next to the airstrip that is designed to accommodate 3,000-ton naval frigates and coast guard cutters.

While China uses its navy and commercial fishing for conducting “low-intensity coercion” in its territorial and maritime disputes, the Pentagon says, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) “ships remain at the forefront of responding to perceived challenges to China’s territorial and maritime claims as China seeks to avoid a military confrontation. China maintains a near-continuous presence of CCG ships in all disputed areas in an effort to demonstrate its ability to operate when and where it wants. During periods of tension in the South China Sea, China uses the quantity and advanced capabilities of its CCG assets to overwhelm and deter South China Sea claimant nations with the goal of eventually compelling regional acceptance of China’s sovereignty claims. Ongoing island reclamation activity will support China’s ability to sustain longer patrols in the South China Sea.”

But China is looking to reclaim what it feels belongs to the nation, using the air and the sea, directly or as a threat.

“Enforcement of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) against Japanese aircraft and responses to Japanese maritime activity near the Senkaku Islands reflects Chinese efforts to normalize its presence near the islands and demonstrate its intent to defend its claims while avoiding serious miscalculations with Japan,” the Pentagon says. “The PLA Navy primarily plays a deterrence role in China’s use of ‘low-intensity coercion’ and refrains from becoming directly involved in territorial and maritime disputes to avoid escalation. Although the PLA Navy remains at a distance, its deployed surface combatants are ready to respond to a deteriorating security environment.”

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