While much of the world has been occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been active in promoting China’s claims in the South China Sea. Is it justified to argue that China is taking advantage of the global pandemic to make military gains?
In a new essay published in the Winter 2020 issue of the China Leadership Monitor, FSI Center Fellow at APARC Oriana Skylar Mastro sheds light on this question. Leveraging Chinese-language sources in addition to her own operational knowledge from over a decade of military experience, Mastro evaluates the PLA activities in the South China Sea over the eight-month period since March 2020. She includes in her analysis PLA statements, military exercises and operations, and deployment of relevant platforms and weapons in the region. Her conclusion is that the PLA has not significantly increased its operational role in the South China Sea but rather its signaling role. “Specifically, the Chinese military seems to be purposefully using, and perhaps even exaggerating, its capabilities and activities to enhance deterrence against the United States,” she argues.
After compiling a comprehensive picture of Chinese military activities in the South China Sea that includes both deployments of systems to the Paracels and Spratlys Islands and military exercises in the area, Mastro examines what these activities reveal about the PLA’s role in China’s South China Sea strategy.
PLA deployments in the area suggest it is trying to discourage the United States from countering its attempts to increase control over the South China Sea, she says. “China has been linking its deployments to U.S. activities for signaling purposes […] With new basing on the South China Sea islands and longer-range and more capable aircraft, China now has the option to move these platforms as a way to demonstrate to the United States its capability and resolve.” Over the past eight months, China has also conducted more robust military exercises to prepare for South China Sea contingencies. “But military readiness and preparedness are not the only reasons the PLA conducts exercises, notes Mastro. Instead, she argues that the PLA role has evolved beyond the operational to become a leader in a signaling strategy to bolster Chinese deterrence vis-à-vis the United States.
One of the strongest indicators that the Chinese military is attempting to leverage its role to signal capability to the United States is how the Chinese official media are capturing the ongoing competition. Having reviewed approximately 80 publications on the South China Sea, Mastro finds that the Chinese media are being used to amplify how capable the PLA has become in conducting complex operations in the South China Sea and to highlight that it is blameless for the current tensions in the region.
Mastro concludes that the PLA has taken a more active role in China’s South China Sea strategy, but not necessarily a more aggressive one. It is the need to enhance deterrence vis-à-vis the United States that has become a priority. “The PLA has become the main vehicle through which China is attempting to convince the United States to moderate its own South China Sea approach.” This sensitivity, and in some cases paranoia, about U.S. strategy, she claims, “suggests we are likely to hear tough talk and ostentatious military activity for some months to come.”