Beijing flexes military muscle to send a message

Liu Rui/Xinhua via AP

It was all about sending a message when Beijing sent an H-6K bomber to land in one of artificial island bases it built in the South China Sea.

And the message Beijing’s message was: “We’re here to stay. Any attempt to remove us by force will be costly.”

The landing of the Chinese bomber on the artificial island, which was built on a reclaimed reef, should not be taken in isolation. For the past several months, the Chinese military has been flexing its muscles.

The most significant was the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s deployment of at least 40 warships, including its new aircraft carrier, for a major naval exercise in the South China Sea last April.

Before that, the surface-to-air missiles and other weapons were installed in the reclaimed reefs that China used to fortify its territorial claim in the South China.

And these should not really come as a surprise. The Chinese government had already announced its intentions in two white papers.

These official Chinese defense documents actually outline the evolution of the facilities constructed on those artificial islands and the Chinese government’s military posture in the South China Sea.


On May 26, 2015, the Chinese government released a defense white paper in Singapore outlining its strategic concept of “Active Defense”.

“The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the Communist Party of China’s military strategic thought,” the defense white paper said. “From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike; and adherence to the stance that ‘We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.’”

The Chinese military document also called for the deployment of military forces to “foster a strategic posture favorable to China’s peaceful development.” This showed that the Chinese military was integral in Beijing’s diplomatic efforts to bolster its territorial claim in the South China Sea.

In this May 13, 2018, file photo provided by China’s Xinhua News Agency, China’s indigenous aircraft carrier lifts anchor in Dalian in northeast China’s Liaoning Province.(Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

The facilities in the artificial islands constructed by China was mentioned in the white paper.

The document stated that “integrating military with civilian purpose and combining military efforts with civilian support” was a guiding principle of Chinese defense policy.

This statement was significant because it came at a time when Beijing began building its artificial islands.

The Chinese foreign ministry at that time stressed that those artificial islands were for civilian purposes. But the reality as pointed out in the white paper was that those reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea were manned by Chinese military personnel to maintain a Chinse military defense zone.

“China encourages joint building and utilization of military and civilian infrastructure, joint exploration of the sea, outer space and air, and shared use of such resources as surveying and mapping, navigation, meteorology and frequency spectra,” the Chinese 2015 defense white paper said. “Accordingly, military and civilian resources can be more compatible, complementary and mutually accessible.”


On January 11, 2017, the Chinese government released its white paper on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation in Beijing.

For the Philippines, one sentence in the white paper may prove to be significant. The statement was: “Rules of individual countries should not automatically become “international rules,” still less should individual countries be allowed to violate the lawful rights and interests of others under the pretext of “rule of law.”

This can be taken as an diplomatic hint of Beijing’s continuing displeasure over Manila’s successful effort in The Hague in 2016. An arbitral court ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

On one hand, the white paper emphasized Beijing’s focus on “strengthening and jointly tackling challenges with all relevant parties so as to maintain maritime peace and stability.”

Yet at the same time Beijing said it was open to cooperation, there was one non-negotiable issue: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters.”

“China has always been committed to resolving disputes peacefully through negotiation and consultation, managing disputes by setting rules and establishing mechanisms, realizing mutually beneficial outcomes through cooperation for mutual benefit, and upholding peace and stability as well as freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” the Chinese white paper said

But then came this sentence: “China resolutely opposes certain countries’ provocations of regional disputes for their selfish interests. China is forced to make necessary responses to the provocative actions which infringe on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,and undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea. No effort to internationalize and judicialize the South China Sea issue will be of any avail for its resolution; it will only make it harder to resolve the issue and endanger regional peace and stability.”

It was an implicit message that Beijing remained steadfast in its stand not to accept the ruling of arbitral court in The Hague favoring Manila. It was a message to the Duterte administration that the arbitral court’s ruling was useless because Beijing will never recognize it.


Beijing’s intentions were made clear in those two white papers. And the Chinese government has been following through. Beijing was turning its words into reality.

During a press conference on May 21 in Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang statement about a Chinese H-6K bomber landing in one of the reclaimed reefs was consistent with the stand made in those two white papers.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman’s statement was a response to Washington’s  continued criticism that Beijing was militarizing the South China Sea and after Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs was reported to have “expressed concern” over the incident.

“The South China Sea Islands are China’s territory,” the Chinese official said. “The relevant military activities are the normal training of the Chinese military and there is no need for other parties to over-interpret that.”

“As to the so-called ‘militarization’ mentioned by the US, the normal training on our own territory is totally a different thing from certain country’s threat to others by sending military vessels and aircraft to this region from thousands of miles away,” he added.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (CPLAAF) said the bomber was among several bombers that made a “simulated strike against sea targets before landing on an island in the South China Sea

“The aircraft then conducted takeoff drills using the island’s airport,” said the CPLAAF. The operation was designed to provide experience for the bomber pilots and crews in using the islands as their bases.

As for the Chinese naval exercise last April, Senior Colonel Ren Guoquiang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense issued a statement.

“It was the natural right of China as a sovereign state to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands,” the Chinese officer said.

“The Nansha Islands are China’s territory. It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. It is conducive to safeguarding the state’s sovereignty and security, ensuring the freedom and security of navigation channels in the South China Sea, and maintaining regional peace and stability. It is not directed against any country, ” Ren said.

“China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defense, ” Ren added.

“Active Defense.” Beijing has turned those two words from concept into reality in just three years.




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