China is set to greatly increase its military presence in the South China Sea, according to a new U.S. Department of Defense report. Chinaâ€™s neighbors can expect to see its newest aircraft carrier, ship-killer missiles, and Marine Corps wade into disputed waters more boldly as the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army focuses on an â€œexpeditionaryâ€ capability, facilitated by the increasing militarization of its outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
China has strengthened and modernized its military capabilities to the point where its Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army (PLA) is â€œalready ahead of the United Statesâ€ in some areas, the Pentagon said in its annual China Military Power Report published on Wednesday.
â€œThere didnâ€™t used to be this much tumult in the South China Sea,â€ Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia said at an event held by the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday. He cited Chinaâ€™s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters and the refusal of China to delimit its claims in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
â€œWhich would have been the right thing to do,â€ he added. â€œThey have not. They have continued to argue and put forward claims that are inconsistent with international law. Thatâ€™s certainly one of the aspects that weâ€™ve talked to the Chinese about, both in our department and in other departments.â€
China now has the worldâ€™s largest navy, with an overall battle force of around 350 ships and submarines compared with the U.S.â€™ 293 ships, the report said. Some of this growth, according to the Pentagon, is aimed at asserting Chinaâ€™s claims in the South China Sea.
Notably, Chinaâ€™s first domestically-produced aircraft carrier, the Shandong, is â€œvery likelyâ€ to be permanently stationed at Yulin Naval Base, the home base for the PLA Navyâ€™s South Sea Fleet that sits right on the doorstep of the Paracel Islands, a string of rocks disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
China now also operates 30 Type 054A guided missile frigates and over 42 Type 056 corvettes â€“ both classes of warship frequently spotted in the South China Sea. It is also planning on patrolling the South China Sea with â€œAI-enabled unmanned surface vessels,â€ although the report is scant on details about them.
The PLA Marine Corps, amphibious troops under Chinaâ€™s navy that have exercised in the Paracel and Spratly Islands this year, has also grown exponentially, from two to eight brigades.
However, the Marine Corps has improved â€œslower than expected,â€ according to the report, with only its original two brigades properly equipped and ready for the its mission of safeguarding Chinaâ€™s bases in the South China Sea and seizing other small islets and reefs there.
Nonetheless, China is preparing its forces to work farther and farther afield, as it builds up its â€œexpeditionaryâ€ capabilities with the help of its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
â€œThe construction of new airfields and hangars on outposts in the South China Sea extends the possible operating areas of PLA aviation forces,â€ the report says. â€œFuture deployments of PLA combat aircraft operating from Spratly Island outposts could feature extended range and/or loiter time over the South China Sea or even reach into the Indian Ocean.â€
Two of Chinaâ€™s newest bombers, the H-6K and H-6J, are known to have landed at key Chinese military bases in the South China Sea, such as Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef.
Those bases have also been significantly upgraded. Chinaâ€™s bases in the Spratlys — Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef and Cuarteron Reef — boast advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems as well as jamming equipment, according to the report.
Despite the reportâ€™s warnings about Chinaâ€™s increasing military might versus the United States, China downplayed its findings on Wednesday and took issue with its framing of Chinaâ€™s intentions in modernizing its armed forces.
â€œThe Constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly stipulates that China adheres to the path of peaceful development and promotes the building of a community with a shared future for mankind,â€ Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for Chinaâ€™s foreign ministry, said at a press conference in Beijing. â€œChina has also pursued a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. China is a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order. The development of China’s military power means growing strength for world peace.â€
The Pentagon report, however, says PLA has also improved its ability to hit moving ships at sea with missiles from the Chinese mainland.
China launched four anti-ship missiles into waters off the Paracel Islands last week, including a DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs), as part of its military exercises in the area. According to the Pentagon, the PLA Rocket Force is dramatically ramping up its supply of these â€˜ship-killerâ€™ missiles, which can be used with either conventional or nuclear warheads. The Pentagon estimates China now possesses about 200 DF-26 IRBMs.
Chinaâ€™s PLA Rocket Force now commands more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, the report says.
â€œOur leadership has called repeatedly on the Chinese to limit the activities of what theyâ€™re doing. To not militarize their features, to halt these really unlawful practices and expectations they hold, for us and others,â€ Sbragia said. â€œAs a result we have increased our military operations and activities in the South China Sea, both by ourselves and in coordination with others in the region, and globally, and will continue to do so.â€