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Why a Voice from China Admitted That Disputed Artificial Islands Are Hard to Defend

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this video image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the U.S. Navy, May 21, 2015.

A magazine with ties to the Chinese armed forces has acknowledged China would have difficulty in defending its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. Analysts see the article as a signal to the incoming U.S. administration that it should not force Beijing to further fortify the islets.

Bases on a network of reefs and atolls, where Beijing has used landfills to create space for airstrips and other military infrastructure, are hard to defend because of their distance from mainland China, the monthly magazine Naval and Merchant Ships said in its most recent edition.

The publication, which has ties to a shipbuilder that supplies the People's Liberation Army, does not necessarily reflect the views of China’s military leaders. But experts believe it is probably sending a message to President-elect Joe Biden and his national security team.

“I think this is to lay the groundwork for toning down the tension with the Biden administration” after a buildup of U.S. naval activity in the region under President Donald Trump, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center research group in Washington.

She said she believes the magazine’s report, which has been translated and published in at least two English-language media outlets to date, is “telling the United States that China is not trying to have a war with the U.S. in the South China Sea and China cannot even win a war in the South China Sea.”

But if relations stay strained under Biden, Yun said, the magazine report suggests China would be obliged to do more to build up and defend the islands.

“If the lowering the head strategy doesn’t work, it will pave the ground for China's further deployment of weapons and enhancement of military capabilities on these islands,” she said.

Beijing believes about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea falls under its flag, a calculation based on historic usage records. About five years ago, China began using an estimated 1,295 hectares of reclaimed landfill to build out reefs and atolls for human habitation as well as military installations such as hangars and radar systems.

Some islets are more than 1,000 kilometers from mainland China. The distance makes it hard for supplies from the mainland to reach island bases in case of an attack, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.

“In terms of any confrontation, they would be the first to go, I could imagine,” he said. “It’s too strategic not to be taken down.”

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest some or all of China’s claims to the sea that’s coveted for fisheries, oil and gas.

The other five claimants have protested to the United Nations, at the world arbitral court and their own foreign ministries about China’s expansion in the sea. But none has the military power to go up against Chinese holdings in the two major island chains, the Paracels and Spratlys.

Chinese officials worry about the United States given U.S. pressure on China this year, analysts say. Trump stepped up South China Sea naval missions called “Freedom of Navigation Operations” in 2020 and offered military support including joint exercises to other claimants to the disputed sea.

In July, for example, two U.S. aircraft carriers and two other warships entered the waterway. That month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s maritime claims illegal.

Washington is embroiled in trade, tech and consular disputes with China, its former Cold War rival. It sees other countries around Asia as allies that it can use, if needed, to contain Chinese expansion.

But China hopes Biden will get the two sides off to a fresh start when he takes office next month, scholars say.