China’s efforts to enforce its disputed claims to vast stretches of the sea by building up artificial islands and structures on reefs and outcroppings have drawn the Philippines and its ally the United States into a test of wills in the region.
BEIJING — China intends to project naval power in the open ocean in coming years, and not just defend the country’s coastal waters, according to a strategy paper released on Tuesday.
The policy document issued by the Chinese military comes at a time of growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. China’s efforts to enforce its disputed claims to vast stretches of the sea by building up artificial islands and structures on reefs and outcroppings have drawn the Philippines and its ally the United States into a test of wills in the region.
The dispute escalated last week when a U.S. military surveillance plane flew near Fiery Cross Reef, a contested atoll in the Spratly Islands that has been the site of frenetic dredging work in recent months. Chinese forces repeatedly ordered the U.S. plane to leave the area, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman later called the flight irresponsible and dangerous.
The Pentagon said earlier this month that it was weighing whether to send warships and aircraft into what it says are international waters, but which China says are within its zone of control.
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On Tuesday, in an act of defiance likely to further inflame tensions in the region, China’s state media announced that construction work had begun on two lighthouses in the Spratlys, adding to a growing array of Chinese-built structures that have been identified in satellite photos, including radar facilities and a runway capable of handling military aircraft.
The policy document, released on Tuesday by the State Council, extends beyond naval policy to emphasize the continued modernization of the Chinese military in general, and it describes cyberwarfare as a grave security threat that requires the development of a cybermilitary force. But Western analysts said the document’s emphasis on improving naval capabilities and projecting force far from China’s coastline was the most striking facet of the paper.
Dennis J. Blasko, an Asia analyst at CNA Corp. who studies China’s armed forces, said the paper formally enunciates a transformation that the military has been going through for some time, and that has gained pace in recent years.
“This basically confirms everything that the vast majority of analysts have seen developing: the trends toward a greater maritime force, a stronger air force and improved missile forces,” said Blasko, a former Army attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “Still, even if it’s something we’ve been expecting, it’s a new statement and a big statement.”
In recent years the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which takes in all branches of the military including the navy, has invested in new submarines, launched the nation’s first aircraft carrier and announced plans to restructure the armed forces, although it has released few details. According to Blasko, the navy accounts for about 10 percent of the PLA’s 2.3 million members, while about 17 percent serve in the air force; nearly all the rest are in the army.
Chinese leaders have also abandoned long-held policies that discouraged overseas military engagement.
In 2008, during the height of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, China sent two destroyers and a supply ship to the region, the first time it had dispatched battle-ready warships beyond the Pacific. In April, it sent three naval vessels to Yemen, where it evacuated hundreds of Chinese and other foreign nationals from the conflict-torn country.
“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests,” the strategy paper said. “It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests.”
Xu Guangyu, a retired major general who is now a senior counselor with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the report’s emphasis on open-sea protection was a sign of China’s spreading economic and diplomatic footprint abroad. As China continues to rise, it has enormous interests around the globe that need protection, he said, including investments, trade, energy, imports and the surging presence of Chinese living abroad.
The United States has not taken a position on the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China. Washington says the disputes should be resolved through diplomatic means.
But the administration insists that none of the claimants should interfere with international navigation in the area, and in recent days Pentagon officials have said they have no intention of halting U.S. reconnaissance flights near the contested islets.
Bernard D. Cole, a professor at the National War College in Washington, said the strategy paper suggests that there is little chance that China will relinquish its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, which is rich in oil, gas and fishing resources.