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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China’s ADIZ over the South China Sea: Whole, Partial, or None

Ever since China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in late 2013, many wondered whether China would do the same over its claims in the South China Sea. Early this year, the United States began to publicly warn China that it would not recognize a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea. Given the timing of its admonition, Washington seemed like it was preparing for a Chinese reaction to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a Philippine case against China’s South China Sea claims, which is expected in May.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea caught many off guard. Perhaps to prevent a recurrence, the United States chose to signal China in advance. Naturally, China’s defense ministry retorted that Beijing had every right to establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea. After all, Beijing considers the area within its “nine-dash line” claim to be sovereign Chinese territory. Yet the ministry’s spokesman was quick to add that China had no plans to set up such an ADIZ.[1]

Apart from placating the United States, there are other reasons why China might hold off from establishing an ADIZ over the South China Sea. They deal with Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) most influential members. Whereas China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea could narrowly target Japan, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would impact not only China’s two main antagonists there, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, but also all of the other disputants in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

For decades, Malaysia has played down its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Rather than confront China, as the Philippines and Vietnam have, Malaysia has tried to use quiet diplomacy to persuade China of the benefits of a multilateral resolution to the region’s conflicting claims. That strategy reached its high point in 2002 when China signed ASEAN’s non-binding declaration of conduct in the South China Sea. Although China has since violated the declaration’s terms, Malaysia has stuck to its strategy. Even after China twice held amphibious exercises off Malaysian-claimed James Shoal, only 80 km from Malaysia’s coast, Malaysia chose not to escalate tensions with China.

Similarly, Indonesia has minimized its dispute with China. So much so that Indonesian diplomats routinely repeat that their country has no territorial dispute with China. Though technically true—the two countries have no land features in dispute—what they do have is a maritime dispute. China’s nine-dash line claim encompasses some of Indonesia’s richest offshore oil and natural gas fields. (See hatched area on map.) Plus, China has increasingly made its presence known in the area. Just last month, two Chinese coast guard vessels again clashed with an Indonesian fishing boat. Such incidents have alarmed the Indonesian military. But Jakarta has hesitated from providing it with the resources needed to strengthen its defenses near the Natuna Islands.

A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea would definitely infringe on the claims of both Malaysia and Indonesia. That would be difficult for China to explain away. It would also run counter to China’s long-time strategy in the South China Sea. For years, China has sought to divide its Southeast Asian opponents and convince them to individually settle their disputes with it. A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea does little to achieve those ends. Rather, it could do the opposite. It would put Malaysia and Indonesia in the same boat as the Philippines and Vietnam, pushing them together. Moreover, such an ADIZ would undercut those who believe that by taking a less combative approach toward China their countries can avoid its assertiveness in the region.

On the other hand, if China declared an ADIZ over the northern half of the South China Sea—overlapping only the claims of the Philippines and Vietnam—it could reasonably argue that its aim was only to protect itself from airborne intrusions from those two countries. Both are building stronger air forces to counter China. That would at least encourage some in Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, a partial Chinese ADIZ would likely make many others uneasy that China could someday extend its ADIZ further.

Given the potential for an ADIZ (whether whole or partial) to unify ASEAN’s core states against it, China has good reason to be cautious. Ultimately, a Chinese ADIZ could create more problems for China than it solves. It could push Malaysia off the fence or turn Indonesia into a full-fledged disputant. It could also make it harder for surrounding countries, like Australia and Japan, to give China the benefit of the doubt. Finally, it would likely undermine the goodwill that China has been trying to generate across Southeast Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

More broadly, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would mark a real change in China’s approach to not only its maritime dispute, but also East Asia. It means that China has become confident enough to act, regardless of the international consequences. If so, China will have indeed stood up. But it might learn that standing up can expose one to stiffer headwinds.

[1] “China says no need to ‘gesticulate’ over South China Sea plans,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

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Chinese Accusations in the East and South China Seas

“Japan always criticizes others, so how can it explain its own actions?” charged the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s spokesman Yang Yujun. He was referring to Japan’s activation of a military radar station on Yonaguni Island earlier this week. Japan’s westernmost island, Yonaguni sits at the edge of the East China Sea, where China and Japan have an ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China). The spokesman argued that it was hypocritical for Japan to characterize China’s deployment of military forces in the South China Sea as “militarization,” while Japan builds a radar station so close to a disputed part of the East China Sea.[1]

East and South China Seas
East and South China Seas

Of course, Chinese accusations of hypocrisy have targeted not only Japan, but also the United States. In recent years, China has taken aim at the United States over its criticism of what it considers China’s militarization of the disputes in the East and South China Seas—from declaring an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea to building artificial islands adorned with military facilities in the South China Sea. Washington has considered such actions as violations of “international norms.” As a result, it resumed freedom of navigation patrols in the western Pacific last year. But China considers Washington’s reaction as hypocritical. How, Chinese officials ask, can the United States criticize China for militarizing the South China Sea, when it uses military forces to conduct its freedom of navigation patrols near Chinese-held islets and has expanded its Asian military alliances, most notably through the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines.

On the other hand, China sees no hypocrisy in its criticism of Japan or the United States. China considers its military actions as wholly within its sovereign rights. After all they have been conducted on what it considers to be its territory, even though many other countries may dispute that claim. In February, China took another step. It deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles and HQ-9 air defense missile systems on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands. While China may view its military buildup in the South China Sea as defensive and proper, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (and increasingly Indonesia) likely see it differently.[2]

Surely the military significance of Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island pales in comparison to that of China’s anti-ship missiles on Woody Island. The radar station can only monitor nearby ships, whereas anti-ship missiles can target them. Moreover, the radar station was built on undisputed Japanese soil; China’s anti-ship missiles are deployed on an island still disputed by Vietnam.

But given the complaints that China has leveled against Japan over its new radar station, one may wonder how China would react if Japan took an equivalent step to that of China’s on Woody Island? (Were Japan to do so, it would have to deploy anti-ship missiles and air defense missile systems on the disputed Senkaku Islands.) China’s recent comments offer a clue. Beijing would likely argue that such an equivalent step by Japan is not equivalent at all, largely because of the impact it would have on China’s strategic situation. Already, China’s ministry of defense intimated that the deployment of its military forces in the South China is less provocative than Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island. Yang contrasted the two situations from China’s perspective: “the South China Sea is a wide and expansive place, unlike Yonaguni’s location at a narrow choke point”—one which China relies on for access into the Pacific Ocean.[3]

Certainly, if Japan were to deploy missile systems (rather than just a radar station) on Yonaguni Island or any of the other Ryukyu Islands, they would complicate China’s strategic situation. But the fact that China’s strategic situation would be complicated is not Japan’s concern. Nor would it diminish the contradiction in China’s own criticism of Japan, given that it already deployed missile systems in the South China Sea. China’s objections would sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

[1] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

[2] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Imagery suggests China has deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 23, 2016; Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China deploys HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 17, 2016.

[3] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

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South China Sea Escalation: Relations between China and the United States

Every week that passes seems to bring a new development in the South China Sea. Over the last few months, China finished the construction of military-grade airfields on several of the islets that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago and began building radar installations on them. It also deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems and combat aircraft to the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, the United States twice sailed a guided-missile destroyer close to Chinese-held islands and flew a pair of B-52 bombers nearby to assert freedom of navigation through the area. It also began to monitor the region with P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Possibly even more worrisome to China, the United States has begun to discuss conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with not only the Philippines, a country that disputes China’s claims, but also India, one of China’s Asian rivals. Yesterday, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with India and Japan, China’s other Asian rival, in the waters just north of the South China Sea later this year.[1]

Naval and Air Bases in the South China Sea

While tensions have rapidly risen in recent months, the escalation in words and actions between China and the United States started years ago. Many Chinese cite 2010 as a turning point. During that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Southeast Asian leaders publicly rebuked China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Not believing that they would do so on their own accord and witnessing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s behavior at the forum, China came to believe that the United States orchestrated the criticism. From that, China concluded that the United States had abandoned its long-held position not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute and had chosen to interject itself into it.

Certainly by late 2014, the United States had decided to challenge China’s actions. Diplomacy had failed to deter China from incrementally elbowing its Southeast Asian neighbors out of the South China Sea. Indeed, China had become even more assertive, violating the spirit of the ASEAN code of conduct that it signed in 2002. Rather than refraining from actions that may change the status quo, China stepped up its military presence, increased the number of its coast guard patrols, and even encouraged its fishermen to fish in the South China Sea with subsidized fuel. That eventually led to a months-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Despite the risk of such incidents, both China and the United States have good reasons to stand firm. First and foremost, Beijing believes that the islands in (and possibly the waters of) the South China Sea are its own. Plus, Beijing knows that no Southeast Asian country without American support can prevent it from dominating those waters. Chinese observers also have cause to question how strong that American support really is. Over the last half decade or so, the United States has proven itself to be diffident whenever it has been confronted with an international crisis, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. However vigorous American rhetoric might sound, Beijing may believe that if push came to shove, the United States would back down.

On the other hand, Washington believes that it must ensure freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not only for the sake of international norms, but also to shore up the credibility of its security commitments in Asia, which have been dented by its past prevarications. Ultimately, those commitments help to underpin the prevailing international order, which China occasionally chafes against. But many American observers wonder whether China would really challenge that order, not least of which because China has so greatly benefited from it. Why risk upsetting it now, especially when China’s economy is teetering. Surely, Chinese leaders, whose primary interest has always been to stay in power, are more concerned about the rising unrest inside China than the South China Sea. However confrontational China may seem, Washington may believe that if push came to shove, China would back down.

All of this would be even more alarming were it not for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as this week’s United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But how far apart the two countries are on the South China Sea was made clear in February when the United States openly warned China of “consequences” if it did not heed the decision of an arbitration court in The Hague where the Philippines brought a legal case against China over its South China Sea claims. That divide was again evident at a press conference last week during which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while standing next to one another, cautioned each other’s country not to take further provocative actions in the South China Sea. Neither diplomat appeared to acknowledge the other’s caution. As most observed, it seemed as if they agreed to disagree.

Days later, the heated rhetoric between China and the United States resumed. At a Congressional hearing, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the United States of “maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”[2] Neither comment raised many eyebrows. Perhaps that is because we have become inured to the rhetorical exchanges. But the longer the escalation of words and actions continues, the higher the stakes will be if an incident does occur. It will be harder for China and the United States to back down without real costs. But thus far neither side seems in the mood for compromise.

[1] Sanjeev Miglani, “U.S. plans naval exercises with India and Japan in Philippine Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016.

[2] “China slams U.S. admiral’s South China Sea remarks,” Xinhua, Feb. 26, 2016.

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Strategic Intentions: China’s Military Strategy White Paper

On Tuesday, China published its latest defense white paper.  Unlike its’ eight predecessors, this document was the first time that China publicly unveiled parts of its military strategy.  Even the paper’s title was changed from China’s National Defense to China’s Military Strategy.  Rather than the opaque and retrospective generalities found in earlier versions, the new white paper offered details about China’s strategic intentions and the future development of its military.

One Chinese military official went so far as to state that the greater transparency of the new white paper was a sign of a more confident China.  That said, many of the revelations contained in the document were hardly novel.  It profiled China’s decades-old “active defense” strategy, which maintains that China would always remain strategically defensive–though perhaps not so at the operational or tactical levels.  It also detailed the Chinese military’s primary aim: to prepare itself to fight “local wars under conditions of informationization”—in other words, regional conflicts in which command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (C4ISR) would play major roles.  That too was already known.[1]

But other revelations in the white paper were more illuminating.  It showed that China intends to focus its force development in four domains: cyberspace (it will boost its cyber warfare capabilities); outer space (it will take steps to defend its interests there, even though it is opposed to the militarization of that domain); nuclear forces (it will build a reliable second-strike capability); and finally the oceans.

Yueyang - China frigate

That last domain is what currently worries China’s neighbors the most, given Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the white paper highlighted Beijing’s intentions to further expand the Chinese navy and extend the range of its operations—shifting from “offshore waters defense” to “open ocean protection.”  The white paper argued that China’s growing overseas interests have changed the country’s focus from being a continental land power to a maritime power.  That has led China to prioritize its navy in its military modernization plans.  In what once would have been heresy in the Chinese military, the white paper declared that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”[2]

That means that in the future China would not only defend its coastline from attack, but also its sea lanes of communications through international shipping routes, including those from the Middle East through which over half of China’s oil flows.  That, in turn, means countries like India will have to get used to seeing more of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.  By the same token, Japan and the United States should expect more Chinese naval and air patrols in the Pacific Ocean and maybe one or two more Chinese aircraft carriers.

The white paper also listed China’s strategic concerns.  Chief among them was America’s “rebalance” toward Asia, under which the United States has increased its military presence and strengthened its alliances in the region.  The white paper also noted Japan’s push to revise its military and security policies, characterizing them as “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism.”  China’s “offshore neighbors” warranted mention too for their “provocative actions [to] reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied,” no doubt referring to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.

While the white paper’s greater transparency may be the product of a more confident China, it is still a country that has not escaped the classic security dilemma.  As the white paper itself observes, China’s neighbors are rearming and helping the United States bolster its security alliances.  So, even as China strives to improve its security, it has prompted its neighbors to seek ways to improve their security situations, thereby reducing the effectiveness of its own efforts.  That is something that China’s military strategy probably did not intend.

[1] “China sticks to ‘active defense’ strategy,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,  http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432675208303328.shtml; “White Paper highlights ‘active’ defense strategy,” interviewee Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, China Ministry of National Defense, host Han Bin, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/26/VIDE1432614727198411.shtml.

[2] China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015); “China’s defense white paper,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, host Wang Yizhi, Dialogue, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432668717544907.shtml.

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Ready for a Fight?: How America Could Respond to a South China Sea Crisis

Last Monday, an American littoral combat ship, the Fort Worth (pictured below), sailed just over 12 nautical miles from some of the artificial islands that China has built from reclaimed land in the South China Sea.  While the U.S. Navy has conducted such transits before to ensure freedom of navigation through the region, it was the first time that a U.S. warship came so close to Chinese-held islands.  The transit was part of a stepped-up American effort to deter China from asserting its claims in the Spratly Islands too aggressively.  That effort has included openly questioning China’s maritime claims in December 2014 and encouraging Japan to take a bigger security role in the region earlier this year.

USS Fort Worth - Littoral Combat Ship

Last week, the United States also revealed that it is considering sending its ships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles—the internationally-recognized territorial zone around natural islands—of China’s newly-built islands, which the U.S. does not regard as natural.  If that happens, an incident between U.S. and Chinese forces may well take place.

Currently the Fort Worth, based in Singapore, is the only U.S. warship whose homeport is anywhere near the Spratly Islands.  While the U.S. Navy plans to eventually base four littoral combat ships in Singapore, when that might happen is not yet known.  In the meantime, America’s thin grey-hulled line in the South China Sea will be very thin indeed.

Thus, the Pentagon must consider how it would respond to a crisis there if one should occur.  Broadly speaking, the U.S. Navy expects to flow forces into the region from other areas around the world.  But to reach the South China Sea, those forces would have to pass through or near a number of choke points.  Those choke points would be natural places where China could intercept U.S. forces.

South China Sea - U.S. Navy

The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, would be the closest reinforcements that the United States could dispatch.  It would also be the most susceptible to Chinese interception.  To reach the South China Sea it would likely sail down the eastern flank of the Ryukyu Islands and through the Luzon Strait.   On the way it would pass the Miyako Strait, through which submarines and warships of China’s East Sea Fleet are known to sortie into the Pacific Ocean.  Then, as the U.S. fleet passes through the Luzon Strait, it would face the full brunt of Chinese naval and air forces stationed along China’s southern coast, including the main bases of China’s South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang and Yalong Bay.  While the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines sailing underwater from Guam may avoid Chinese air power, both U.S. surface and subsurface forces would likely encounter Chinese submarines in the confined spaces of the Luzon Strait and in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, normally operating near the Persian Gulf, would be the next closest source of reinforcements.  Its principal challenge to reach the South China Sea would be to sail unfettered through the long and narrow Malacca Strait.  There, Singapore’s capable navy and air force could play a vital role in keeping watch for Chinese aircraft and submarines, even if it did not want to directly involve itself in the dispute.

The last forces to arrive might deploy from as far as Hawaii or the U.S. West Coast.  They would be largely drawn from the U.S. 3rd Fleet.  Those forces may choose to eschew the Luzon Strait altogether and support operations in the South China Sea from the Sulu or Celebes Seas.  There, they could operate in relative safety, though still within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles.  At least the mountains of Palawan Island would degrade the ability of Chinese land-based high-frequency direction-finding equipment and over-the-horizon radar to accurately target U.S. forces.  Resupply, particularly of ordinance, could be routed by air through Zamboanga (where U.S. Special Forces have operated for about a decade) or by ship through Davao or Koror.

All of which is to say that the success (or failure) of an American response to a crisis in the South China Sea depends, in no small part, to what happens in and near those straits, and that those straits should be very much present in the minds of U.S. naval commanders.  They also remind us of the abiding importance of geography, even in naval warfare.

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