Beijing’s Militarization of South China Sea Islands Can Cause US, Allies ‘All Sorts of Problems’: Expert

Beijing’s Militarization of South China Sea Islands Can Cause US, Allies ‘All Sorts of Problems’: Expert
A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea, in an aerial photo taken on Jan. 2, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Washburn
Gary Bai

Beijing’s growing aggressiveness and military buildup in the South China Sea pose risks to the commercial interests and the security of many nations, and especially powers on friendly terms with the United States such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

This warning was made by security analyst Grant Newsham, who also said the moment was ripe for the United States to leverage its amicable relationship with Japan in order to deter Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aggression and uphold stability in the region.

He spoke to the significance of recent revelations by U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John Aquilino that Beijing had fully militarized three artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.

“China has expanded its ability to conduct military operations about 1,500 miles farther offshore from China. So now China can reach down to Australia, well into the Southwest Pacific, and off into the Central Pacific. And from these bases, it can cause the Americans and America’s friends all sorts of problems,” Newsham, a senior fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, recently told Epoch TV’s “Forbidden News” program.

Newsham described the islands as full-blown military outposts, one of them roughly equal to Washington D.C. in size, and another as big as the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The outposts have 10,000-foot runways for military planes, anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft systems, and maintenance facilities, he said.

While the rapid buildup of these outposts may have caught some observers off guard, Newsham said that the construction and militarization of the islands have been underway since 2014 and that it has been “completely obvious” what Beijing hoped to achieve here.

“And this despite Xi Jinping having promised [then-President Barack] Obama they would not militarize them. But it’s no surprise that that’s what has happened, and now we’re acting like it is,” Newsham said.

“Throughout this period, there were people who were saying, look, the Chinese are going to militarize, they’re going to establish the ability to take control of the South China Sea, which is an area of international waters about one and a half times as big as the Mediterranean Ocean. China just said, ‘It’s there, so we’re going to take it,’” he observed.

Newsham identified steps that policymakers and lawmakers could have taken to thwart Beijing’s moves. These include suspending the Chinese central bank’s license to operate in the United States for six months, and making public the financial holdings and real estate holdings of the top 50 CCP leaders. But instead of facing the issue and countering Chinese expansion in the region, U.S. elites allowed their symbiotic relationship with China’s business sector to keeping growing.

“Over the last 30 years, America’s business class, financial class, and even much of its political class has gotten itself hooked on Chinese money. The idea is that if you do business in China, you overlook all of the human rights problems, violations, and atrocities, and overlook the fact that China wants to drive America out of the Asia-Pacific,” Newsham said.

An airstrip made by China is seen beside structures and buildings at the man-made island on Mischief Reef at the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea are seen on Sunday March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
An airstrip made by China is seen beside structures and buildings at the man-made island on Mischief Reef at the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea are seen on Sunday March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Working With Japan to Counter Beijing

In the face of Beijing’s far-reaching expansion of its military presence in the Pacific, Newsham said he sees the U.S.-Japan relationship as the key to regional stability.

While a number of nations in the region are friendly to the United States, Japan occupies a unique niche within the geopolitical landscape. Newsham described Japan as a fully functioning democracy uniting respect for individual liberties and human rights with vast economic might, and a complement to the American presence in the hemisphere.

A further benefit of the strong relationship between the two powers is that it induces other nations to want to participate in the alliance, he said. Australia is already a strong ally, while smaller powers like Singapore are appreciative of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Newsham said he also sees a role for South Korea in an alliance of like-minded nations opposed to Beijing’s aggression.

Having said that, Newsham acknowledged that while Japan’s military is large and powerful, it still has progress to make with regard to conducting operations and meeting recruitment targets. Currently, the Japanese Defense Forces are missing those targets by 25 percent every year, he said. Newsham sees this shortfall as partly a function of Japan’s diminishing population but also a consequence of Japanese politicians’ belittling of the armed forces and a need for improvement in the areas of salaries, benefits, housing, and terms of service.

In Newsham’s view, it will not be unduly hard to reverse these trends and tip the geopolitical balance in favor of the powers opposing Beijing. The key is to bolster the Japanese Defense Forces on numerous levels.

“Given them some psychological support and tangible concrete support in terms of money and respect, and allow them to develop into a fully professional force that is solidly linked with the United States. Do that and America’s and Japan’s prospects in the region improve immensely,” he said.

Newsham outlined a number of specific steps, namely establishing a joint headquarters for Japanese and American troops that they can use to coordinate a response to the Chinese military.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done, and fast. Really, things have not been allowed to develop anywhere near where they need to be to take on the threat from China,” Newsham said.

“Japan is really well respected in the region. The Chinese and the North Koreans aren’t too crazy about them, but everywhere else—go down the list—India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, the Japanese are very well-liked.”

Newsham said he sees a prominent role for a Japanese amphibious force in countering Beijing’s military expansion and a possible move against Taiwan, but bringing his vision to fruition will require doubling the size of Japan’s navy both in terms of enlisted personnel and the number of ships at its disposal. Such an expansion will complement the “excellent relationship” that now exists between the Japanese and American navies, he said.

Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics for The Epoch Times. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
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