A new Pentagon map shows how China is beefing up what a top US general calls its 'dangerous position' in the South China Sea

A view over the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea
Structures on the artificial island built by China in Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, seen on October 25.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
  • China and several of its neighbors have claimed parts of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

  • A map from a recent Pentagon report shows how those countries are building outposts in the Spratlys.

  • While China's claims have been widely rejected, it continues to press them, at times aggressively

In November, the Pentagon released its annual China Military Power Report, which included a number of maps to illustrate its updated assessments of the Chinese military's capabilities and reach.

One of those maps offered a detailed depiction of the Spratly Islands — a highly disputed area in the South China Sea that has been a source of tension between China and its smaller neighbours.

Six countries claim all or some of the islands and features in the Spratlys. China's land-reclamation and fortification efforts there over the past decade have made the islands it controls the best-armed and most imposing.

China shows no signs of reducing its buildup or shrinking its presence, adding even more complexity to one of the most dynamic regions in the world.

China's 'dangerous position'

A map of the South China Sea depicting geographical claims made over the Spratly Islands
Several countries claim parts of the Spratly Islands and have set up outposts there.US Defense Departments

The map — one of several in the report depicting Chinese forces — shows the current claims in the Spratly Islands as well as China's facilities there.

The territorial and continental shelf claims of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are shown with several overlapping lines. The map also gives rough locations for seven Chinese outposts, including three airfields, and 63 other outposts in the Spratlys.

China's outposts "are capable of supporting military operations" and "have supported non-combat aircraft," the Pentagon report says. "However, no large-scale presence of combat aircraft has been yet observed there."

The report also says that the missiles and other weapons systems at Chinese-controlled outposts are "the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by any claimant in the disputed South China Sea to date."

Chinese military operations in the South China Sea are overseen by the Southern Theater Command, which is one of China's largest and most important theater commands.

A map depicting the location of Chinese military units assigned to the Southern Theater Command
Chinese military units assigned to the Southern Theater Command.US Defense Department

Ground, naval, and air force units of the People's Liberation Army are based along China's southern coast, including on Hainan Island, which is home to major PLA bases and hosts a PLA Rocket Force missile brigade.

The Southern Theater Command and the adjacent Eastern Theater Command would be involved in any Chinese military operation against Taiwan. Recent action by those forces around Taiwan, as well as ongoing Chinese activity in the South China Sea, has worried US commanders.

"The PLA Army and the PLA Rocket Forces and the Strategic Support Forces are in dangerous position," Gen. Charles Flynn, the commanding general of US Army Pacific, said at a think-tank event in February.

"They're rehearsing, they're exercising, they're experimenting" in the region, Flynn said, citing the PLA's activity around Taiwan following a visit by then-Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi in August and a high-altitude spy balloon that US officials say was launched from Hainan Island in late January and drifted over North America several days later.

Both were cases of "very irresponsible and aggressive behavior," Flynn said. "The region sees that and they don't like what they see."

The Spratly Islands

A small boat of Philippine fishermen sails past a larger Chinese coast guard ship near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea
Filipino fishermen sail by a Chinese coast guard ship near Scarborough Shoal on February 5.STR/AFP via Getty Images

The Spratlys are made up of islands, islets, submerged reefs, and other maritime features across roughly 158,000 square miles in the South China Sea between southern Vietnam and the Philippines.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have overlapping claims to some or all of the Spratlys. All but Brunei have deployed soldiers and fortifications to back up their claims. Those disputes have turned violent at times, including deadly skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and in 1988.

In recent years, China has turned some features it controls into fully developed artificial islands, adding over 3,200 acres of land to them, constructing ports, airstrips, bunkers, radars, and jamming stations, and deploying advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.

In 2020, China created a new administrative district for the Spratlys, putting them under the jurisdiction of the city of Sansha in Hainan.

China's navy, coast guard, and maritime militia regularly patrol around the Spratlys and through the region, trying to back up its claims, often by harassing rivals.

A view over Thitu or Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea
Thitu Island on March 9.JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese vessels have blocked oil exploration and prevented Philippine supply vessels from restocking their own outposts. Chinese ships also maintain an almost continuous presence in disputed areas, especially Scarborough Shoal and Thitu Island.

Scarborough and Thitu, also known as Pag-asa Island, are the sites of some of the most contentious encounters between China and the Philippines. Manila won a legal victory over China in 2016, when an international tribunal at the Hague ruled against many of China's claims.

Among its holdings regarding the Spratlys, the court said that the areas in question were not legally islands and thus did not grant China rights to territorial seas or exclusive economic zones. The court also held that China had violated the Philippines' rights, including by interfering with fishing activity around Scarborough Shoal.

China continues to ignore the ruling and pressure rival claimants, especially the Philippines.

In February, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel directed a "military-grade laser" at a Philippine Coast Guard ship sailing to an outpost in the Spratlys, temporarily blinding its crew. Weeks later, Chinese Coast Guard vessels demanded Philippine aircraft flying over the Spratlys leave what they called "Chinese territory."

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