Change comes slowly to Asia, a region of overwhelming geopolitical forces. Among the few exceptions to this rule is the South China Sea, where seemingly unimportant events can move through the region like an ocean swell. It was with this exception in mind that the media reacted so rabidly today after China placed two HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island, a link in the disputed Paracel Island chain. The media would have us believe that China's actions were a watershed moment in the militarization of the South China Sea — and that they directly challenged the concept of freedom of navigation in its waters.
A more sober assessment shows that what China did is neither surprising nor particularly consequential. In fact, the status of Woody Island is fairly uncontroversial, even by the standards of the South China Sea. Though Vietnam and China each claim Woody Island for itself — as they do with all islands in the Paracels — according to international law, it is neither a rock nor reclaimed land, unlike more contentious Chinese island-building projects elsewhere in the disputed waters.
Moreover, Woody Island is already host to more Chinese military equipment than most other islands in the South China Sea. It is relatively well stocked with transport infrastructure, including an airfield and a small harbor. The island sustains a small civilian population and is the seat of Sansha city, the Chinese civilian administration established over its South China Sea claims. A small garrison has stood in the city since at least 1985. In short, China's interest in protecting its anchor in the South China Sea predates anything that happened Feb. 16.
If anything, the surface-to-air missiles would not even be terribly effective in a conventional military conflict; defending the Paracels is logistically difficult. But limited though they would be in such a fight, their assembly actually aligns with China's political strategy in the region: establishing de facto control over the space with its holdings (natural or reclaimed) while keeping opposition divided and unable to mount an effective challenge. These kinds of deployments are Beijing's best option for discouraging a potential U.S.-led coalition from severing critical lines of communication through the South China Sea.
For now, the United States will try to do what it has done in the past: curb Chinese maritime expansion by working with claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Of course, China's actions will be viewed suspiciously by the United States, which has every interest in maintaining its naval superiority throughout the world. Washington is concerned that China's interpretation of maritime rights could restrict the free flow of maritime trade, but it is not so concerned that it will shore up its military presence in the South China Sea. It would rather delegate that responsibility to its allies, such as Japan and Australia.
To that end, the United States had hoped it could persuade Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to push back against China's claims. (Interestingly, the media hype over the missile batteries overshadowed the conclusion of the landmark summit U.S. President Barack Obama held with ASEAN leaders in California.) But these hopes have faded over the years; Washington simply cannot bring on board non-claimant ASEAN members such as Laos and Cambodia, which have little to gain and much to lose if they act against China. The disunity in ASEAN could be heard in the Joint Statement of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, which paid lip service to the concept of Freedom of Navigation without explicitly referring to China or the South China Sea. Despite its best efforts, the United States has found that ASEAN, the formation of which was predicated on consensus and mutual noninterference, is much better configured to support cooperative economic initiatives than joint security arrangements.
For now, the United States will try to do what it has done in the past: curb Chinese maritime expansion by working with claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. And though the deployment of surface-to-air missiles will do little to speed things up, it is not the prelude to regional warfare the media has made it out to be. The move simply has not significantly changed the calculations of anyone involved in South China Sea.