This Map Visualizes China's Growing Military Capabilities In The South China Sea

Illustration for article titled This Map Visualizes China's Growing Military Capabilities In The South China Sea

This awesome interactive map shows China’s emerging area denial and anti-access military capabilities in the South China Sea. It is useful in visually tracking China’s progress towards creating an overlapping field of control over a vast majority of the area.


The map, which you can access here, is built by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

One of China’s highly developed islands in the northern part of the South China Sea, Woody Island, has been equipped with surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft. These moves have come just as many defense analysts have predicted for years and are likely an indication of things to come for China’s other island outposts throughout the South China Sea.

There is also evidence that China is installing a high-frequency long-range radar array on Cuarteron Reef, one of their handful of manmade islands in the south-central part of the South China Sea. This radar type is known to be used for detecting aircraft and ships at extreme ranges far over-the-horizon and can theoretically detect some stealthy aircraft under certain circumstances. It is just one of many other sensors popping up on this island and others, although the existence of such a capability provides even more evidence that China is actively seeking an aggressive anti-access, area denial strategy over the South China Sea.

This all comes as China’s largest island building project out of their manmade island initiative, Fiery Cross Reef, officially activated its 9,000-foot runway early last month. The runway is capable of supporting even China’s heaviest bomber and transport aircraft.


With any luck CSIS will keep updating this fabulous visual resource as China expands its military capabilities to its other islands that remain under construction in the South China Sea. Undoubtedly, the threat rings you see today will blossom and multiply, creating a massive overlapping area of control backed up by anti-ship and anti-air missiles, as well as fighter and maritime surveillance and attack aircraft.


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While this whole situation is a mess, the part that most people don’t get is that as long as this doesn’t morph into something catastrophic with a provocation that escalates to shots being fired, the underlying situation actually has gotten better rather than worse and is going to stay that way for a while.

Besides all the nationalist pride and revisionist history involved, the underlying reason for the nine-dashed line and the claim on the Spratlys is to project force to secure oil and gas reserves.

Except...given the cratering in the commodity markets - not coincidentally led by Chinese demand growth dropping off - nobody in the world is going to do much more than the occasional exploratory well on a high risk (meaning cost versus massive uncertainty of what you’ll find when you drill, not security) project for the next several years.

Politics aside, even if China wasn’t involved whatsoever any Western oil company would get shot by its shareholders for development costs in poking around here. Even CNOOC (which has much lower return requirements given their joint strategic mission to grow overseas Chinese oil and gas assets, and would undoubtedly be the ones drilling here) has announced they’re cutting CapEx this year by 25%.

China can drop as much as it wants in the region for now, but the pot won’t boil over until and unless commodity prices really rebound and various other countries want to press claims. Especially on natural gas with LNG exports ramping up (which is what a lot of people think is under the region), that may take a while.