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PLA bases in South China Sea battle the elements

2022 Nov 07, 18:07, Hong Kong

 China's military bases, built upon reefs that barely protrude above the surface of the South China Sea, have attracted a lot of attention since they first started popping up nearly a decade ago.

China has invested a lot of money and effort into creating these overtly military bases over the past 7-8 years. In 2015, Chairman Xi Jinping actually promised former US President Barak Obama that China would not militarize these facilities. It was a bald-faced lie back then, something that became even more obvious in the intervening years.

Chinese analysts describe these bases - 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands (of which Woody Island is the largest) and seven in the more southerly Spratly Islands - as "unsinkable aircraft carriers". China has had jurisdiction over the Paracel Islands only in the latter half of the last century. In the past decade, however, the PLA has erected seven militarized outposts in the Spratlys, approximately 1,300km south of Hong Kong.

The PLA has installed high-tech sensors on Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, Mischief and Subi Reefs. Indeed, satellite and aerial imagery of these facilities shows them bristling with infrastructure such as runways, berths, hangars, barracks, radars, naval guns and air defense missiles.

The John Hopkins Applied Physics University published a series of assessments about these South China Sea bases, in which J. Michael Dahm noted: "Over two dozen probable radars were noted on the island reefs in total. These include likely air and surface search radar, target tracking radar, microwave over-the-horizon radar that can track surface targets at long range, and a unique low-frequency radar on Subi Reef purported to have significant anti-stealth capabilities."

Furthermore, Dahm stated, 'Electronic warfare systems...appear to be diverse and redundant, probably covering a broad swathe of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition to mobile ground-based electronic warfare systems, the PLA established a number of fixed signals intelligence facilities that include a high-frequency direction-finding site [Mischief Reef] and a likely site to monitor foreign satellites communications [Fiery Cross Reef]."

Four reefs boast 50 high-frequency communications antennas between them, some as tall as 26m, that provide complementary longer-range communications. An undersea fiber-optic cable link with the mainland exists (completed to all seven outposts by 2017) alongside robust satellite communications. Furthermore, inter-island communication relies on troposcatter, VHF/UHF line-of-sight, 4G cellular and data links. These can be reinforced by unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft if necessary.

From 2016-19, China created a network of sensors and communications equipment between Hainan and the Paracel Islands. This Blue Ocean Information Network comprises five 34m-long floating platforms around Hainan, and one fixed platform at Bombay Reef in the Paracels. They presumably collect marine data and act as communications conduits.

Chinese militarization of the South China Sea is consequential, giving the PLA major advantages in all situations outside of a major conflict. Yet they are not as "unsinkable" as China makes out, for they possess vulnerabilities.

Professor Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, posed the question: "[Have you] ever wondered why each of these outposts is so underpopulated, considering the infrastructure can hold about a regiment of troops? The fact is that, geomorphologically, these artificial islands are unstable."

Koh, quoting a Chinese government official, noted that these "artificial islands were built in haste. Environmental impact assessment and structural feasibility studies, which would have been required, were pushed aside to expedite the project." Thus, "The geomorphological challenges pushed aside for the political expediency of having these artificial islands up and running wouldn't have been [dealt with] when construction was still ongoing."

Indeed, Chinese and People's Liberation Army (PLA) scientists were grappling with the problem even whilst construction was in full swing. This could be seen in an August 2016 study published by the Journal of Harbin Engineering University. The abstract reveals that the carbonation service life of concrete structures in the South China Sea is less than 25 years, with chloride diffusion penetration in ordinary concrete some 1-2 orders of magnitude greater than temperate areas like Europe.

China is thus locked in a perennial battle against marine corrosion in the South China Sea. High temperatures, extreme humidity, high salt fog and solar radiation "significantly accelerate the corrosion rate" of alloys, according to another study conducted on Woody Island in the Paracels, and published in 2020.

Yet another study stated that "different seawater zones of a reef in the South China Sea have severe corrosion properties, especially in the splash zone..." Furthermore, "Storage of petroleum, oil and lubricants supplies poses a challenge given the extant marine environment in the South China Sea, especially the omnipresent nemesis which is none other than corrosion..."

Koh continued: "Even into this year, Beijing continues to conduct research on the geomorphological stability of these artificial islands - which very plausibly indicates it remains a persistent problem and that no significant breakthroughs have yet been achieved to rectify it."

Remember that earthquakes in the South China Sea area are relatively frequent too, with these structures built from reclaimed coral sand. Koh again: "Geomorphological stability issues and marine corrosion aside, long-term habitability at these outposts also presents a particular challenge."

This was recognized by China years ago, for a 2007 study concluded that "the self-rated health in naval servicemen in the islets of the South China Sea is worse than that in ones on the land, especially psychological health." Such findings were backed up a 2019 report entitled "Investigation and Analysis of Health Service Needs of Officers and Soldiers on Some Islands and Reefs of Nansha".

The survey found that 70% of respondents reported high monthly morbidity rates (i.e. incidences of health issues). Common complaints were joint pain, skin diseases, oral/dental diseases, upper respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal diseases. In addition, 18.2% of respondents reported feeling anxious, depressed or lonely, likely exacerbated by the isolation of these remote bases.

Another study published just a few months ago suggested that slightly older military personnel exhibited better tolerance compared to young personnel in the high-temperature and high-humidity environment. The fact that China is performing so many studies on physical and mental performance in the South China Sea shows it is a matter of high concern for the PLA.

Yet another study published in China's Industrial Water and Wastewater in February 2021 concluded, "Due to the shortage of freshwater resources, the exploitation and utilization of outlying islands and reefs are seriously restricted." Potable water on these reefs comes from desalination plants.

In fact, Taiwanese-occupied Taiping is the only island in the South China Sea possessing natural freshwater. Koh summarized: "So in conclusion, I just want to say that it's easy to focus on the obvious - those impressive artificial structures that are so visual - and overlook the not-too-obvious challenges that afflict these outposts. 'Unsinkable'? Sorry, I don't place my bet on such a label."

Nonetheless, the China Coast Guard, People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia and PLA have not slackened efforts to stamp Beijing's authority on the disputed maritime area of the South China Sea. China typically uses fishing boats, militia and law enforcement patrol vessels to create ongoing presences in contentious locations such as Scarborough Shoal, and these vessels routinely find succor in China's new outposts.

Additionally, Beijing is attempting to prevent US and other foreign naval ships from transiting through the South China Sea, and freedom of navigation for civil maritime traffic could one day be hindered if China is allowed to assert illegal control over international waters. China is in the same way interfering with overflights in the South China Sea, ordering foreign military aircraft to turn away.

Lynn Kuok, a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, explained: "This is something that should concern us all. First, because it's not merely a dispute over rocks and reefs as some like to say, but it's something that affects the balance of power in the region.

"And the second reason it should concern us is that the rules-based order is being undermined, and this doesn't just affect the South China Sea and the US, China, but it affects global order and the ability to ensure stability, not just regionally but internationally. So we should all care about what happens in the South China Sea." But why is China so insistent on claiming territory within its ambiguous Nine-Dash Line that it arbitrarily concocted, and whose territorial claims overlap those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam?

There are obvious military and strategic reasons. China covets a buffer zone off its coast, strategic depth so it can keep potential enemies at arm's length. Additionally, a shallow continental shelf along much of China's coastline is etched more deeply in the South China Sea, thus allowing nuclear submarines located at Hainan Island to reach deep water with greater stealth.

Furthermore, the area helps protect access to the critical Malacca Strait chokepoint. Naturally, there are vast hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed that can be exploited, as well as fishing stocks. China's rabid nationalism and domestic public opinion also force it to go on claiming the South China Sea as its own.

Koh told ANI: "This ties in with the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a victim of its own success, because decades of national education have created generations of younger Chinese citizens who have never gone through the tough old days under communist rule. All they see is a strong China that has past grievances and, of course, the question to the CCP is, 'Why aren't we being strong and fighting back?'"

In effect, by calling the South China Sea an ancestral sea, the CCP has painted China into a corner. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then announcing new "official" districts there on 18 April 2020 was just one further step to cement China's position in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, despite its exorbitant territorial claims having already been declared invalid under international law via a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in July 2016.

China's two new districts will "govern" the Paracels, Macclesfield Bank and the Spratly Islands, where overlapping claims exist with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Xisha administration will be located on Woody Island, while the Nansha jurisdiction will be controlled from Fiery Cross Reef. This move enables more resources and manpower to be allocated to island management.

Then, on 19 April 2020, the Natural Resources Ministry and Civil Affairs Ministry jointly announced the naming of 80 geographical features in the South China Sea, including 25 islands, shoals and reefs, and 55 underwater features. Again, this is part of efforts to create a fait accompli and assert Chinese ownership after the fact.

China once claimed that its new Spratly facilities were being built for the benefit of others. This is a blatant lie, for no aircraft or boat is allowed anywhere close to them. Indeed, recent imagery showed that the PLA has placed mobile obstacles onto runways so that aircraft - presumably including those in distress - cannot land there.

China rushed through the militarization of its man-made military bases in the Spratly Islands, and it continues to deal with the by-products of those actions. The greatest challenge is corrosion in the harsh marine and tropical environment.

Nonetheless, these bases still permit the PLA and supporting agencies to dominate the waters and skies of the South China Sea. They act as hubs for maritime patrol vessels, and radars and aircraft on temporary rotations can govern the skies. Yes, in wartime, these bases would be highly vulnerable to enemy attack by missiles and bombs, and the PLA would have an extremely hard time resupplying them.

Despite this, one added advantage is that they would tie up resources and forces in the initial phases of a wider conflict against China. But for now, despite the environmental, corrosion and health challenges these militarized reefs endure, they do enable the Chinese government to extend its belligerent reach far to the south of legal limits. 


China's military bases South China Sea Chairman Xi Jinping US President Barak Obama Chinese analysts Paracel Islands Spratlys South China Sea bases Chinese and People's Liberation Army PLA Navy
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