This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
New units of People’s Liberation Army have been established and existing ones upgraded over the past decade to man outposts in the South China Sea, leaving China’s military better positioned to project power in the region, according to a new report.
The report ‘The People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea: An Organizational Guide’ released by Recorded Future, a private cybersecurity company, sheds light on the organizational structure of the PLA units on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
It identifies and analyzes nine specific PLA units, mostly in the Paracel Islands that China calls Xisha, giving details of their duties, facilities and assets.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and has been engaged in territorial disputes with several neighboring countries.
The Chinese military occupies the entire Paracels archipelago and at least seven features in the Spratlys, with the number of troops stationed there estimated at more than 10,000, according to the report.
The PLA units “are responsible for defending China’s outposts in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands,” it says, listing duties such as “operating radar installations, ensuring airfield support for aviation forces, training and commanding maritime militia forces, implementing engineering projects, supporting the launch and orbital management of spacecraft, and providing air defense.”
These army units also “actively participate in military-civil fusion programs, including engaging in joint operations and exercises with civilian forces, drafting regulations with civilian authorities, and coordinating the construction and use of physical infrastructure with civilian entities.”
With the main focus on the protection of China’s maritime and territorial claims, the units have received sizable funding and grown rapidly over the past decade.
“In recent years, the PLA has generally played a background role in China’s strategy to consolidate control over the South China Sea, providing a deterrent cover for frontline maritime law enforcement and maritime militia operations,” the report says.
But thanks to the development efforts, it is now much “better situated to defend China’s maritime and territorial claims… project power within and beyond the first island chain, control access to vital sea lines of communication… or engage the United States in a conflict over the status of Taiwan.”
The 33-page report provides up-to-date and comprehensive research on China’s solid military presence on the islands and features in the South China Sea.
Zachary Haver, China defense analyst at Recorded Future and the author of the report, said it took him almost four months of dedicated research using a diverse set of open-source materials to complete the report.
“The biggest difficulty was identifying the PLA units,” he said, “as the Chinese authorities are usually very careful about protecting their identities, especially in sensitive areas like the South China Sea.”
China began fundamentally reorganizing the PLA around 2015, according to Haver, and deployed a significant number of new forces to the South China Sea over the past decade.
“Moving forward, the PLA will likely continue building its capacity to carry out combat operations in the South China Sea, surveil foreign ships and aircraft operating in the region, and perform joint rights defense and rescue operations with China’s maritime law enforcement and maritime militia forces,” the report concludes.