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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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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Getting Tougher: Vietnam’s Response to China’s South China Sea Bases

Over the last few months, Vietnam has quietly deployed the components of several Extended Range Artillery (EXTRA) rocket systems to five of the islands that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago, according to Western officials. If true, Vietnam likely did so in response to China’s construction of military facilities on the islands that it controls across the region. Vietnam has reportedly dispersed and camouflaged the EXTRA rocket systems, but can arm them within days.[1] While Vietnam currently lacks the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for the systems to target ships at sea, they can put at risk China’s island bases. With a maximum range of 150 km and an accuracy of within 10 meters, they could render inoperable many of China’s newly built airfields.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

Vietnam is not a country known to shrink from a challenge, even when the odds are stacked against it. So far, that has been the case in the South China Sea where the growth of China’s naval might and its determination to assert sovereignty over the region have made the odds of successfully resisting it increasingly steep. Hanoi is doing what it can. It has lavishly spent on new Kilo-class submarines and Gephard-class frigates from Russia. It has accepted Japanese help to build a more robust coast guard. It has even strengthened its military ties with the Philippines, despite its concerns over Manila’s commitment and strength. (Indeed, the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has eased the confrontational approach of his predecessor by offering to open talks with China based on the recent arbitration court ruling.)

Vietnam’s military buildup in the South China Sea may prompt China to take further steps to strengthen its hold on the region. China is not taking any chances. It is already building reinforced concrete shelters to protect aircraft on its island airfields.[2] Earlier this summer, the Chinese air force began to send its fighters and bombers on “combat patrols” over the region.[3] All the while, China has continued its efforts to squeeze out the Philippines and Vietnam from the islands they hold by interdicting the resupply of their garrisons.

Still, the hardening of defenses on Philippine and Vietnamese-held islands is bound to make further Chinese attempts to seize new territory more difficult. The ease with which China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012 is less likely to be repeated. The only remaining island features in the region that now seem vulnerable are those of Malaysia, like James Shoal.

The arms buildup on the islands of the South China Sea may seem alarming. But the mere presence of more arms does not mean that conflict is inevitable. It does mean that if a conflict does occur, it could rapidly spiral. Given the strategic vulnerability of the islands involved, the deployment of offensive weapon systems, like rocket systems, may present commanders with a use-or-lose choice during a crisis. That would indeed be disturbing.

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

[2] Eric Beech, Idrees Ali, and Michael Martina, “Photos suggest China built reinforced hangars on disputed islands: CSIS,” Reuters, Aug. 11, 2016.

[3] Michael Martina, “China conducts ‘combat patrols’ over contested islands,” Reuters, Aug. 6, 2016.

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Shame Power: The Philippine Case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Philippines may not have much conventional power it can bring to bear in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. But today it demonstrated that it does have the power to shame China on the international stage. After hearing the Philippines’ legal case against China’s South China Sea claims, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within [its] ‘nine-dash line’” claim. The ruling went even further. It detailed how China had aggravated the dispute and “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone” by constructing artificial islands and interfering with Philippine fishing and energy exploration.[1]

Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea
Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea

The ruling was a long time in coming. In 2013 Manila brought its dispute with China to the PCA, an option provided for under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Normally, the PCA’s tribunal would have heard the arguments of both parties in a dispute before making its ruling. But in this case, it heard only those of the Philippines. China refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing that the tribunal had no authority over its maritime borders. So to ensure that the tribunal had adequate authority to make a ruling, Manila asked it to narrowly assess “the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines over its maritime entitlements” in the South China Sea. That allowed the tribunal to make a ruling without Chinese participation. It also obliged the tribunal to consider the validity of China’s overlapping “nine-dash line” claim under UNCLOS.

Of course, the tribunal’s ruling does little to compel China to change its behavior in the region. China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea. Over the last two years China has reclaimed enough land to turn the features it occupies in the Spratly archipelago into man-made islands large enough to support military-grade airfields and facilities. China is unlikely to abandon them now.

Over the long term, the tribunal’s ruling puts the Philippines in a better position to pursue future legal action. For the time being, however, what the tribunal’s ruling does do is to publicly shame China. Once, that mattered to China. In 1997, when a United Nations commission was considering a resolution critical of China’s human rights record, Beijing mounted a major diplomatic campaign, including tours by Chinese leaders and offers of trade deals, to dissuade other countries from voting for it. The fact that China did so to avoid international criticism suggested that it mattered to China. Today it does not seem to matter as much. China has grown too economically and militarily powerful. That has made it more confident in its ability to shape its geopolitical environment on its own terms.

One of the first countries to feel the brunt of China’s new confidence was the Philippines. Perhaps that was because the Philippines had become an easy target. After the Cold War, it allowed its navy and air force (the two services that matter in the South China Sea) to fall into disrepair. At the same time, it distanced itself from the United States. So, when China began asserting itself in the South China Sea, there was little Manila could do. That much was clear when China blocked access to Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and prevented Manila from resupplying by sea its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in 2014.

Yet Manila refused to back down. It took its case against China to the PCA. It also began to rebuild its armed forces and strengthen its security ties to Japan and the United States. In March, the Philippines and the United States held their first joint naval patrol in the South China Sea and finalized their Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing American forces to rotate through Philippine military bases. Meanwhile, the Philippines has hosted a growing number of Japanese naval vessels, including a submarine, at its naval base in Subic Bay.

Nonetheless, the Philippines may change its approach to China. Former President Benigno Aquino, whose perseverance had been so critical in keeping international pressure on China, left office in June. His successor, Rodrigo Duterte, seems ready to take a softer line towards China. During his presidential campaign, he said that he would work to shelve the Philippines’ dispute with China; and that he was open to joint development of the South China Sea, especially if Chinese economic assistance was forthcoming. Such comments should encourage Beijing. But it remains to be seen how China responds.

In the meantime, China is likely to brush off the tribunal’s ruling. But the Philippines’ success at the PCA has not gone unnoticed. Other countries have followed the tribunal’s proceedings with keen interest. Encouraged by the Philippines, Vietnam added its position to the proceedings in late 2014. Indonesia has said that it would consider its own case too, if negotiations with China failed. Even Japanese lawmakers have discussed the possibility of international arbitration over China’s offshore drilling activities in the East China Sea. If the Philippine case sets a precedent that others follow, Manila will have demonstrated that it has not only the power to shame, but also the power to inspire.

[1] Matikas Santos, “Key points of the arbitral tribunal’s verdict on Philippines vs China case,” Inquirer.net, July 12, 2016.

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