China’s Wu-14: Racking Tensions in the South China Sea

22 Jun, 2015    ·   4892

Hugo Chene analyses the new developments in the South China Sea and US-China relations

Hugo Chene
Hugo Chene
Research Intern
On 7 June 2015, China tested its supersonic nuclear delivery vehicle, the Wu-14, for the fourth time in less than 18 months. Beijing appears to be willing to expand its military capacity by quickly developing new military devices. The Wu-14 has been specially designed to cruise at approximately ten times the speed of sound while maintaining accurate manoeuvrability. Yet, reports suggest that current US defence systems may not be able to prevent such a vehicle from delivering warheads because of its unpredictability during flight. Once fielded, the Wu-14 will make China further capable of defending its territorial claims against its neighbours and the US. At 250 warheads, China has a small nuclear arsenal when compared to the US for now; but the Wu-14 may strengthen the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) deterrent strategy to protect its claims. Why is Beijing acting in such an aggressive way vis-à-vis the South China Sea (SCS)? Does this test compromise Sino-American relations over the SCS issue?

Paroxysmal China’s Aggressiveness 
In a recent naval white paper published on 26 May, the PLA reminded that the SCS is part of its core interest. Considered part of its security environment, Beijing counters all interferences by being aggressive. China wishes to become a major power in Southeast Asia and to seriously compete with the US. Washington has expressed criticisms against China’s SCS policy over the past several months. Early May, the US publicly denounced China for building 2000 acres of artificial islands on Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs. These reefs are part of the Spratly islands, also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Despite external pressures to halt island dredging, China continues to dismiss the opposition. According to Beijing, the islands are part of its sovereignty and that therefore its actions are legitimate and justified.

By behaving aggressively, China asserts that it will not allow the international community to meddle in its sovereignty interests. Unfortunately for the other claimants, the PLA is not going to change their policy towards the SCS, simply because Beijing knows it has the upper hand. Beijing will carry on building artificial islands. Chinese officials turn a deaf ear to critics during conferences by repeating the PLA’s rhetoric. The last Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), held from 29-31 May, was no exception. China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo ignored criticisms and remained vague to obscure China’s policy regarding the SCS, which was particularly stressful for the other claimants. He stated that China is building over the SCS in order to offer “international public services.” Nonetheless, it’s difficult to believe that Beijing’s efforts to dredge islands are for peaceful motives after the Pentagon displayed pictures of the new Chinese features revealing heavy military devices and a three-kilometre airstrip that can be used by military jets. 

China lacks evidence of its sovereignty over the disputed areas and therefore it chose to create it. By dredging new islands, Beijing is creating what military analysts at the Pentagon call “facts on the water.”

A Sino-American showdown bound to be modified
The Wu-14 test was only nuclear deterrence, China, with its smaller nuclear arsenal is trying to assert itself but wants to avoid any conflict that could be detrimental for Beijing’s diplomacy in the region. Beijing’s aggressiveness led Sino-American relations into complicated territory. First, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, recently warned China that the US reserved the right to decide on whether or not to include China in the 2016 RIMPAC summit.

Even as experts fear that China might establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the SCS, on 20 May, Chinese military personnel warned a US P-8 surveillance flight flying over the Spratly islands that it was entering a “military alert zone.” In November 2014, China already declared an ADIZ over a part of the East China Sea and created serious tensions with Japan and the US. Washington is concerned with the SCS dispute and will not allow China to take the lead over other claimants. At the previous SLD, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter promised to allocate $425 million for the SCS maritime security. Finally, in the light of the Wu-14 tests, the US has chosen to further develop its defence system against a foreseeable threat.
It would be interesting to see the developments during the seventh US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) scheduled for 22-24 June in Washington. This Dialogue provides a unique platform to discuss Chinese assertiveness regarding the SCS. Over the past months, the US and Ashton Carter have been particularly vigorous in their responses against Beijing. In anticipation of the Dialogue, China has already brought down some tensions with their 16 June announcement that Chinese land reclamations in Spratly islands will be over shortly. This decision taken by Beijing reveals China’s valuation of this specific dialogue with Washington.

China undoubtedly hopes to benefit from this announcement by restoring its neighbours’ confidence and easing tensions in the disputed area. However, a definitive assessment of what the future state-of-affairs in the SCS will be may not be possible at this point.