Over the last year, there has been a sharp regional strategic shift. In the South China Sea, China has built six large islands, three substantial air bases and three sizeable electronic surveillance installations. China has effectively moved some 1100km closer to Australia, deep into the geographic heart of the ASEAN region.
Such territorial expansionism is particularly worrying given recent Chinese military developments. Chinese airpower is being rapidly transformed through a major decade-long modernisation program that, as President Xi Jinping directed in 2014, is now accelerating. China’s air force has moved from having obsolete 1950s technology to today operating modern combat aircraft and highly-advanced surface to air missile systems.
With its new air bases and leading-edge air power, China now has the strategic initiative in South East Asia. Whenever it chooses, China can deploy to its South China Sea airbases an air combat force larger and more capable than any ASEAN air force.
Of ASEAN’s air forces, Singapore’s is the most capable, operating some 100 modern fighters, albeit many are normally located offshore at foreign training bases. Given typical maintenance processes and adequate warning, some 50-75 fighters could be surged in a crisis. In contrast, China operates more than a 1000 modern fighters and could deploy 75-100 aircraft across the three islands. China has some further advantages in having sophisticated, readily-deployable surface-to-air missile systems for high-quality island air defence while its fighter aircraft operate elsewhere. Singapore is less well equipped and would need to retain a sizeable fighter force for home air defence purposes. Moreover, China has a variety of long-range land-attack missiles; Singapore does not.
In considering the new Chinese air bases in more depth, most public satellite pictures available date from mid-2016 (though there are also some images from November) and show feverish building activity. The civilian flights to Fiery Cross Reef early in January 2016 also give an indication of the size of facilities there (and the ramp space available). A recent CSIS analysis concludes that each of the three air bases can accommodate 24 fighters and four large transport-sized aircraft for extended periods (see also the BBC). Logistic support for these aircraft is considerably simplified in that each airfield has its own adjacent protected port facilities where tankers and resupply ships can offload. Moreover, the islands are only a couple of days steaming time from China, allowing continuing sea transport support. This proximity – about an hour's flying time – also means aircraft can be swapped into and out of the island bases easily.
With such capabilities, China can now easily enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone across the South China Sea when it deems the time is right. Moreover, for the first time, China poses a realistic air threat to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesian Borneo.
China now dominates militarily the central ASEAN region. In times of peace and crisis, this military capability could be used to intimidate, bully or cajole regional states. In a time of limited regional war, China is now the odds-on favourite.
Current strategies to counter Beijing's behaviour in the South China Sea have failed dismally. ASEAN’s multilateral push has stalled on Chinese intransigence and China’s splitting of the organisation through peeling away Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. America’s approach of occasionally sailing ships close to the islands is for China a momentary annoyance, at best. President-elect Trump’s tweets expressing his displeasure seem similar. China will not suddenly abandon its costly new facilities. They are now a permanent part of our region.
In response, Australia should move from observing failure to active involvement. Adopting a regional risk management approach could markedly improve ASEAN's resilience to Chinese pressure, threats and coercive diplomacy. Such a strategic reorientation would limit the harm that China’s new island bases could inflict on ASEAN countries. Given Australia's limited resources, the key ASEAN states we need to work with are the closest: Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Given the nature of the Chinese challenge, the focus should be on enhancing regional air defence, and for this a useful framework already exists. The 45-year old Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) encompasses Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Great Britain. With careful diplomacy and some adjustments, Indonesia could become a partner.
FPDA could provide the peacetime backbone for a region-wide network that in times of crisis could quickly integrate the air defence capabilities of the participating nations. It would give regional leaders confidence to stand up to Chinese pressure. While taking time to build, such a regional air defence framework would build on the trust fostered over many years during multinational air exercises in Darwin.
Some might say that the China challenge is larger than regional collective defence can manage. But the Chinese party-state has considerable prestige invested in the reclaimed islands. It has stoked strong nationalist feelings that have made the islands a strident part of contemporary Chinese national identity. In military terms China’s airbases are strong but brittle, with some vulnerabilities that a remade and enlarged FPDA could exploit. Regional defence measures need only create uncertainties in the minds of Party leaders to deter them from employing harassment tactics and coercion. To influence these leaders, the region needs simply to suggest that China may not easily win a conflict. Both individually and collectively, these leaders would suffer a potentially fatal loss of public support if the new air bases were rendered ineffective or damaged.
Ideas for regional collective defence have previously been stillborn. What has changed now is China building large military facilities in the South China Sea and becoming assertive. The domestic focus of some regional states might seem to preclude collective defence but building resilience is an internal measure, not outward directed. Resilience threatens no one while limiting the political, diplomatic and military usefulness the new islands might have for China in times of peace, crisis or limited conflict.