U.S. Warns China May Add ‘Nuclear Element’ to South China Sea

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon sounded a warning over China’s plans to introduce floating nuclear power plants on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, part of an annual report assessing the nation’s military strength.

“China’s plans to power these islands may add a nuclear element to the territorial dispute,” the Pentagon said in its 2018 report to Congress titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” “China indicated development plans may be underway to power islands and reefs in the typhoon-prone South China Sea with floating nuclear power stations; development reportedly is to begin prior to 2020.”

The China Securities Journal -- a Chinese state-run financial newspaper -- said in 2016 that China could build as many as 20 floating nuclear plants to “speed up the commercial development” of the South China Sea, the South China Morning Post reported last year. Several Chinese state-run companies last year established a joint venture that aims to strengthen China’s nuclear power capabilities in line with its ambitions to “become a strong maritime power,” the Post said, citing a statement released by the venture.

Beijing claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, which carries around $3.4 trillion worth of global trade each year. Five other countries -- including the Philippines and Vietnam -- also have claims in the waters, which have led to clashes over fishing rights and energy exploration.

Increasing Tensions

U.S.-China military ties have deteriorated of late, with the Trump administration in May revoking an invitation for Beijing to join in Pacific naval exercises due to its activities in disputed parts of the sea. China has reclaimed 3,200 of acres of land in the Spratly Island chain and added with ports, runways and other military infrastructure.

“The best-case scenario for the region would be China reconsidering the electricity supply source for its controlled islands, or at least a delay in the deployment of the fleet,” given potential safety challenges and security risks from pirates or regional terror groups, Viet Phuong Nguyen, a nuclear researcher at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, wrote in the Diplomat website that month.

The report also found:

  • China’s military has expanded bomber operations and was “likely training for strikes” against the U.S. and its allies
  • China was willing to employ coercive measures and mitigate opposition of other countries, including the unsuccessful use of economic and diplomatic pressure to get South Korea to reconsider the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system
  • China uses the Belt and Road Initiative to develop strong ties with other countries to better align their interests and deter criticism
  • The People’s Liberation Army Navy, China Coast Guard and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia now form the largest maritime force in the Indo-Pacific region The three services sometimes conduct coordinated patrols, including planting a flag on Sandy Cay, a sandbar within 12 nautical miles of the Subi and Thitu features, “possibly in response to Manila’s reported plans to upgrade its runway on Thitu Island”
  • China probably used coercion to pressure Vietnam to suspend joint Vietnam-Spain drilling operations in a disputed oil block in the South China Sea last year
  • Computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted by China-based intrusions last year
  • The PLA Air Force significantly increased Taiwan circumnavigations, passing through the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel in the same mission
  • China’s military-controlled coast guard ships sailed on average once every 10 days within 12 nautical miles of Japan-administered islands in the East China Sea

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.