The Human Cost of Chinese Military Outposts in SCS


China’s militarization of 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and seven in Spratly Islands in the contested South China Sea (SCS) over the last decade has been an issue of grave concern, not only for the countries of the region, but for all those that advocate the importance of freedom of navigation. With military infrastructure including runways, naval berths, hangars, barracks, radars, communications networks, naval guns, and anti-ship missiles, it has been assessed by many experts that China is capable of controlling the entire SCS at any given point in time.

These military bases have helped China grab de-facto administrative control over the entire SCS, notwithstanding the overlapping claims by other regional countries. The development of these bases has only emboldened China’s gray-zone activities, involving the Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, to coerce and bully regional countries. Recent studies released by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on Nov. 09, 2022 confirms massive deployment of Chinese militia force in the SCS as well as marked consistency in their movement and behavior patterns over the last couple of years. The heavy deployment and their gray-zone tactics are expected to continue in the foreseeable future. In other words, China has succeeded in establishing it as a new norm, effectively deterring the regional countries, in particular, and other players, in general.

However, closer studies reveal that these military outposts, in reality, may not be as formidable as they seem. A major limitation of these artificially created islands is their geomorphologic stability. Having been built in haste, no proper structural feasibility and environmental impact assessments were made prior to their construction. Resultantly, the service life of the concrete structures in the SCS is estimated to be less than 25 years due to the severe corrosive nature of the water and weather of SCS.

Another issue is the uninhabitablility factor, leaving the outposts under-populated, despite their scale and facilities. While the shortage of freshwater resources, including potable water, is a definite impediment, studies have also revealed that the islands pose a grave challenge to the physical and mental well-being of its long-term inhabitants. A 2019 report investigating and analyzing the health needs of officers and soldiers on Spratly islands found that the military officials there had a high monthly morbidity rate i.e. incidences of health issues, which ranged from joint pain, skin diseases and dental diseases to respiratory infections, gastrointestinal ailments and head and neck issues. Additionally, psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, etc. are common, presumably due to the remoteness of the bases. China is carrying out many studies on physical and mental agility in SCS, indicating that it is a matter of concern for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Besides, there are other operational vulnerabilities that the PLA recognizes as well. Situated afar from mainland, these islands can become easy targets of hostile cruise missiles. Also, in the event of interdiction, the provision of resupplies by air or sea could be a challenge. Thus, in case of a conflict, the military utility of these bases would diminish rapidly.

Such factors make it seem that these military outposts, built in haste in the SCS, are merely white elephants. Though these military outposts in SCS are, in practice, serving the purpose of promoting Chinese hegemony in the region, but can they stand the test of time and prove their operational utility, when actual conflict breaks out?; only time will tell.




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