China is close to finishing a series of surface-to-air missile installations on artificial islands in the South China Sea. According to a recent Reuters article, China claims almost all the waters of the South China Sea, claims which Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam dispute. The recent installations, according to US officials, resemble those housing surface-to-air missiles previously built by China.
The United States has no claims to the South China Sea, although a carrier group consistently conducts patrols in the region. Given the visibility of China’s missile installations, they represent little threat to US military operations in the area (as a visible missile site is a vulnerable missile site). The building of these installations mainly stands as a political test of President Trump’s administration.
The facilities, built over the past several years in the Spratly Islands, have been outfitted with radar equipment allowing them visibility of almost the entire South China Sea, according to Business Insider. Given the missile and radar sites, China will soon ready and able to control the travel and access to the majority of the region, should they so choose.
Strategically, this could prove troublesome not only to neighboring countries, who have all denounced these recent military provocations but also to international shipping and business interests. China could dictate who can fly in or sail through the majority of the South China Sea region, a region that sees over $5 trillion in commerce annually.
How the United States responds will be incredibly important. In January of 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China’s missile installations were “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine (although his language softened in follow-up responses).
If the Trump administration fails to react appropriately to China’s all but annexation of the South China Sea, it could prove to embolden China to establish itself more strategically within the region. With the potential threat of a trade war between the United States and China, do we want a China that is capable of strangling one of the world’s primary shipping lanes? China’s military build-up in the South China Sea is a political test that the Trump administration cannot afford to fail.