Maginot Line in the South China Sea

The Maginot Line was a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapons installations that France constructed just before the border with Switzerland and the borders with Germany and Luxembourg during the 1930s.

A mature network of military facilities in the Spratlys, including an expanded Fiery Cross presence, would effectively extend China’s ability to project power by over 800 kilometers (500 miles), particularly through Chinese Coast Guard patrols in contested areas and potentially even air operations. Similar to its relative economic supremacy, China’s relative advantages in military size, modernization, and professionalism suggest that it is the only South China Sea claimant that is potentially capable of establishing de facto air and sea denial over tiny islet networks in a maritime setting as vast as the Spratly archipelago.

China’s German-built Tianjing Hao dredger is the largest of its type in Asia and China’s primary weapon in island-building, cost approximately $130 million to build. China may invest over $5 billion over ten years on reclamation in Johnson South Reef; the Philippines’ 2014 military budget is less than $2 billion.

China is the only claimant whose economic prowess can support projects that, without violence, significantly alter the status quo there. Admittedly, it is difficult to find credible data on whether other contenders have dredged or pursued similar island-building tactics

Infrastructure improvements are enhancing China’s ability to sustain its naval and maritime law enforcement presence in the South China Sea. This is particularly the case at Fiery Cross Reef, where a five-square mile project has been under construction intermittently since 1988. According to IHS Jane’s, Chinese facilities there serve as ‘‘base’’ for conducting land reclamation projects elsewhere in the Spratly Islands and host communications equipment, a greenhouse, a wharf, a helipad, and coastal artillery. Andrew S. Erickson, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin M. Strange, PhD student at Harvard University, suggest Fiery Cross Reef could eventually sustain a PLA Navy command and control center twice the size of Diego Garcia, a U.S. naval base in the Indian Ocean. China also appears to be constructing an airstrip at Johnson South Reef.

China in 2014 made significant progress on various land reclamation projects on Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuateron Reef, Gaven Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, all of which are Chinese-controlled outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands. In addition to dredging sand to make islands where there previously were none, China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads, and docks—on some of the islands

China has already established manned garrisons on seven of the hundreds of Spratly features. And existing garrisons on Fiery Cross and Subi Reef, each with various radar surveillance capabilities, already house about 100–200 troops.

Chinese construction efforts on Woody Island (one of the disputed Paracel Islands) continue as China recently announced the completion of a 2,000 meter long air strip. This is long enough to support warplanes and work continues on facilities adjacent to the air strip, apparently to support warplanes based on the tiny island. Earlier a school building was completed. This is being used for the 40 children of officials and their families stationed there. The workers continue construction of facilities for the capital of Sansha, a new Chinese municipality (city). Sansha is actually Woody Island and dozens of smaller bits of land (some of them shoals that are under water all the time) in the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south. In fact, the new “city” lays claim to two million square kilometers of open sea (57 percent of the South China Sea).

Land reclamation projects appear intended to bolster the legal standing of China’s South China Sea claims ahead of an International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ruling requested by the Philippines. The Philippines has asked the tribunal to declare whether certain land features in the South China Sea are islands (which can generate full EEZs) or smaller land features (which can only generate territorial seas out to 12 nm). China may perceive that if it can demonstrate that the remote South China Sea outposts it occupies are true islands, rather than mere rocks or reefs, it will strengthen the legal and practical justification for its vast territorial claims.

Airbus Defence and Space imagery dated 14 November 2014 shows Chinese land reclamation operations under way at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Multiple operating dredgers provide the ability to generate terrain rapidly. Operating from a harbour area, dredgers deliver sediment via a network of piping. (© CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS)

China is building an island at least 3,000 meter long on Fiery Cross Reef that could be the site for its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite imagery of the island taken on 8 August and 14 November shows that in the past three months Chinese dredgers have created a land mass that is almost the entire length of the reef.

Fiery Cross Reef lies to the west of the main Spratly island archipelago and was previously under water; the only habitable area was a concrete platform built and maintained by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

The new island is more than 3,000 m long and between 200 and 300 meter wide: large enough to construct a runway and apron. The dredgers are also creating a harbour to the east of the reef that would appear to be large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants.

The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope. China has built new islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs, but none are large enough to house an airstrip in their current form.

China has been at a distinct disadvantage compared with other claimants in the Spratly Islands as it is the only claimant not to occupy an island with an airfield. Taiwan has Itu Aba (Taiping) island, the Philippines has Pagasa island, Malaysia has Swallow Reef (a reef on which it reclaimed land and built an airstrip), and Vietnam has Southwest Cay.

The work at Fiery Cross thus brings parity but is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants. China has previously shown it is willing to spend blood and treasure to assert its territorial claims in this region. Given its massive military advantage over the other claimants in terms of quantity and quality of materiel, this facility appears purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions, or at least provide China with a much stronger negotiating position if talks over the dispute were ever held.

Floating Docks

China is developing floating docks to support its land reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, according to shipbuilding industry officials and information provided at the Shiptec China 2014 exhibition in Dalian.

Officials from the China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC), a subsidiary of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), told IHS Jane’s that it is developing multifunctional floating docks for deployment on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

China will first deploy the docks to the Paracel Islands for trials and testing. After this phase is complete, the docks will be deployed to the Spratly Islands, CSSRC officials said.

Two variants are under development. A base unit consists of a towed multifunctional platform and a bridge. CSSRC said the platform can support the following capabilities: docking for 1,000-tonne ships, maintenance and repair stations for fishing vessels, an electric-power plant, fresh-water storage and supply, desalination of seawater, rainwater collection, and general storage of equipment and supplies.

A second platform variant is based on a semisubmersible vessel that can move under its own power, but not over long distances. The platform can be used for light construction and maintenance of an island, such as heightening sandbanks or removing reefs. CSSRC lists its additional capabilities as temporary living quarters for construction crews, and waste water treatment. The bridge is strong enough to carry a 10-tonne truck.

The floating docks will provide China with the ability to build small settlements on remote islands relatively quickly. The docks carry the basics a settlement needs, and the second variant can expand and improve the reclaimed island. If the docks are deployed in large numbers China could populate large areas of the Paracel and Spratly Islands under its control, thereby strengthening its claims.

China can easily buy more on dredgers and deploy many docks to generate large numbers of fortified, populated islands

Islands are far more durable than aircraft carriers.

Islands and population can help enforce territorial claims. Future settlements with thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people and profitable economic activity from fishing, oil and gas could be a development commitment of tens of billions per year that the other claimants will not be able to match.

The islands currently being built are just the beginning.

China island fortifications seem likely to be more successful than the Maginot line.

China has various “aircraft carrier killer missiles” that can be based at islands. This would make be used to enforce South China sea air and sea control.

Capable gatling guns can be used for point defense of missiles.

Russian media has reported that China’s latest indigenous Type 1130 close-in weapon system can fire 10,000 rounds per minute and destroy 90% of hypersonic missiles traveling at a speed four times the speed of sound.

The system, which is the third-generation of the close-in weapon system developed by China, was recently spotted being installed on a PLA Type 054A frigate.

China’s 1130 close in weapon system

Compared to its seven-barreled Type 730 predecessor, the Type 1130’s Gatling-type gun has the same 30 mm caliber but the number of barrels increased to 11. While the Type 730 has only one magazine which contains 250 rounds, the latest gun carries two magazines each containing 640 rounds. The design allows the gun to fire over 10,000 rounds per minute and raise its hit rate against missiles traveling at Mach 4 to 90%.

SOURCES -Janes, wikipedia, US China economic and security commission 2014 annual report to congress