In many ways, the American label of ‘great wall of sand’ that was applied to the artificial islands in the South China Sea encapsulates a key element of Chinese thinking. The same desire to protect China from external threats that produced the terrestrial Great Wall has been extended into the South China Sea. It’s significant that a Chinese senior officer once expressed surprise at the American label of ‘anti-access/area denial’ for China’s maritime strategy and remarked that the Chinese called what they were doing ‘coastal defence’.
By creating facilities such as artificial islands in the South China Sea, China has effectively pushed out its defensive perimeter to the edge of the first island chain and beyond, at least to the south and southeast. The artificial islands can act as surveillance platforms, as nodes for area surveillance systems (particularly underwater arrays) and as forward operating bases for reconnaissance and strike aircraft and naval surface combatants. They can also house offensive and defensive missile systems. China’s facilities have probably already reached a level of capability that means no outside combatant which enters the South China Sea, however covertly, can be completely confident it’s not being tracked.
China, however, must now balance its continental concerns, which remain complex, against its new dependence on the maritime domain. It will always have an eye on the need to protect itself against attack from the sea, but there’s much more to China’s vulnerability than potential invasion or bombardment. Most of China’s global trade is seaborne. And it is critically dependent on the seaborne import of raw materials, notably energy, from Middle Eastern oil to liquefied natural gas. China’s global engagement also requires regard for the safety of its nationals in unstable regions as well as protection of its investments. None of this is new to the major maritime powers of the past few hundred years, but it is new to China.