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China sends message of supremacy in South China Sea — expert

Photo provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines shows construction on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the Spratly Islands. AFP/Released, File

MANILA, Philippines — An internal journal of China's armed naval wing is sending a message of dominance in South China Sea and two warnings on its possible future actions, an international security expert said.

An article authored by South Sea Fleet officers of China's People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy boasted military supremacy in South China Sea despite repeated denials by Beijing that it would militarize the maritime region. 

On Monday, the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that construction of China's naval, air, radar and defensive facilities on Subi (Zamora), Mischief (Panganiban) and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reefs are near completion.

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"Intimidated by the projects, related claimants and neighboring countries are unlikely to provoke any military conflict or escalate it into a war because they are too poorly prepared," PLA Navy officers said in the article. The internal journal was obtained by Kyodo News.

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More than a statement of fact, the article was presumably published to convey specific messages, Peter Layton wrote in the Lowy Institute's "The Interpreter." 

"For a domestic audience, the messages might be that China’s new assertiveness is helping restore national self-respect, that military power is important, and that the Communist Party is delivering high-quality outcomes," Layton, who taught national security strategy at the US National Defense University, said.

"For an international audience however, the message appears more pointed: China now dominates the region and all should behave accordingly."

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Two warnings

Layton highlighted the two "valuable warnings" in the article concerning possible future Chinese actions. 

The first warning was that a military crisis in the South China Sea is "highly likely." The second warning, was that the article, Layton said, may suggest an establishment of a maritime exclusion zone, which would prevent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states claiming parts of the disputed sea from occupying more features or disrupting Chinese fishing and seabed oil exploration activities.

"The article suggests China should be ready to take advantage of such a crisis, to 'hit the enemy where it hurts' and 'teach it a lesson," the defense expert said.

The article is reassuring its Chinese audience that a crisis can be controlled. It argued that ASEAN member states have weak military and were cowed by China's island building. The US, on the other hand, lacks "the ability and will to engage in a military conflict or…war."

The Chinese Navy officers proposed an "endurance warfare," which entails patience and long-term planning. It said that the Chinese military should "fight behind a civilian front and refrain from firing the first shot." 

Layton noted this strategy seems similar to the one China used in seizing Scarborough Shoal. 

"In a carefully timed sequence, China first sent fishing boats to the disputed territory, then fisheries patrol and coast guard vessels, and finally PLAN warships. Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong called this a 'cabbage strategy' where 'the island is…wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage,'" the analyst said.

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