China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Not Over Yet: China’s Progress in the South China Sea

China may be hoping that the recent easing of tensions in the South China Sea marks a turning point in the region—one that leads to the countries of the Asia-Pacific abandoning their confrontational approach to China. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could point to some “clear progress” toward that end. After being stalled for years, negotiations between China and several Southeast Asian countries finally produced a draft of a new code of conduct for the disputed waters.

China could also cite progress on another front: relations with the Philippines. Throughout the term of former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, which ended in June 2016, the Philippines had been a thorn in China’s side. Not only did it offer the United States access to its military bases, the country also won a legal victory against China’s South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague. But the election of a new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, created an opportunity for China.

Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign drove a wedge between the Philippines and United States. And so, as Washington publicly criticized Duterte, Beijing offered him $24 billion of economic inducements. That made it easier for Duterte to overcome domestic opposition to his pivot away from the United States. He soon ended joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. While he has not terminated his predecessor’s base-access agreement, he may yet do so.

Enduring Challenges

Even as some challenges to China have receded, others remain, and new ones have emerged. Certainly, last year’s leadership change in Vietnam did little to alter that country’s determination to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Satellite images showing that China is building new logistical and military facilities in the Paracel Islands (which Vietnam also claims) have led Vietnamese leaders to do more, not less. Hanoi continues to improve the security of the islands that it occupies.

New Challenges

Meanwhile, Indonesia has become more vocal. Once, Indonesia was content to smooth over its maritime dispute with China by obliquely asserting that no “territorial” dispute existed. Today, Indonesia has taken a clearer line. As Chinese fishing boats, sometimes accompanied by the Chinese coast guard, have pushed deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Indonesian authorities have stepped up their patrols of the region. In February 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo unexpectedly revealed that he would welcome a joint naval patrol with Australia in the South China Sea.  His suggestion was all the more surprising given the rocky security relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

While it refrained from taking up Widodo’s suggestion, Australia did urge Southeast Asian countries to use the PCA’s rejection of China’s claims as the basis for their new code of conduct with China.  For the moment, that quelled concerns over whether Australia would gradually accept Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia as its economic ties with China grew. Some had wondered whether such a process would accelerate, particularly after the stormy conversation between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump in January.

But possibly the most worrisome to China is Japan’s vigorous activity in Southeast Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe routinely visits the region, often bringing with him promises of greater economic and military cooperation. He has offered both the Philippines and Vietnam offshore patrol vessels to monitor the waters they dispute with China. Tokyo has also encouraged Japanese companies to expand their engagement with the region through trade and infrastructure development. A year ago, Japan sent one of its newest attack submarines, the Oyashio, on a tour of Southeast Asia, the first time a Japanese submarine has done so in 15 years. In May 2017, Japan intends to send its largest warship, the helicopter carrier Izumo, to the region. The carrier will spend three months there before it sails onto the Indian Ocean to participate in a joint India-U.S. naval exercise.

Future Progress

It appears that even without the United States leading the way, other countries of the Asia-Pacific are not yet ready to resign themselves to Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Resistance to China may have reached less of a turning point than a plateau. The South China Sea is now far more militarized than ever before. All claimants to its waters have strengthened their claims to the region and their defenses on their respective island outposts. Even the Philippines is continuing with its plans to upgrade the airfield and harbor facilities on Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago. While a period of intense confrontation in the South China Sea may have passed, it does not mean that further Chinese progress will be easy.

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Clouded Reassurances in Asia

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward  islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.

While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.

As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”

Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.

Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.

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Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea

 

Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.

 

Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.

 

Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.

 

China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]

 

The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.

 

That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.

 

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org.

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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