China is ready to project military power in the South China Sea sooner rather than later

China’s maritime transformation is already making waves. Still, however, China’s course and its implications—including at sea—remain highly uncertain…

The past decade and a half has seen China undergo a modernization of its military, including the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This naval modernization, which includes the addition of two aircraft carriers, coupled with China’s seemingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, has caused consternation and alarm among some states and analysts that see China’s moves as part of its rise to, if not global predominance, then at least regional hegemon status.

However, both China’s naval modernization as well as its assertiveness over the disputed Senkaku island chain are part a broader maritime strategy, and should be seen within the context of the maritime geopolitics of  East Asia. That is, China’s recent maritime moves are a natural outgrowth of the geographic situation China finds itself in, and reflective of its overall naval strategy.

The Maritime Geopolitics of East Asia

Fully ninety percent of the world’s commerce is conducted via maritime routes. A sizable portion of this commerce flows through the East China sea, as China, with one of the world’s largest merchant fleets, boasts some of the world’s busiest ports on is eastern seaboard. Trade is the backbone of China’s still expanding economy, and thus ensuring that the sea lanes in the East China sea are secure, and free of harassment is vital to its economic growth. However, the geography of maritime East Asia complicates China’s foreign relations. To its east China is faced with two nation-state archipelagos, the Philippines with over 7,000 islands in its chain to the southeast, and Japan with over 6,800 islands to its northeast. Together the two island nations create a fence of islands against China’s main access to the oceans, both in the South China sea and the East China sea. This is commonly called the first island chain, and figures prominently in China’s strategic thinking. The PLAN is wary of encirclement by foreign maritime powers using this island chain. In fact, the island chain strategy was one that American strategic planners had envisioned that could be used to encircle the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but now could use it to encircle and contain China.

This fear of encirclement by the U.S., and its allies, mainly Japan, wherein they use strategically placed military bases on these islands, is coupled with the fact that China and Japan have fought a series of wars over the control of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria. Beginning in 1592 Japan tried to invade Korea but was beaten back by the Ming emperor. In 1894, after the Meiji restoration, a newly assertive Japan tried again, to wrest Korea from China’s control. This time they were more successful, humiliating China by forcing it to cede Taiwan as well.

The naval component of the PLA has developed a robust submarine deterrent, as well as an array of littoral defense ships. In total the PLAN has 60 submarines, but only four of these are strategic ballistic missile carrying subs, the other 56 are tactical. China also has 87 surface ships, including one aircraft carrier, 27 destroyers, and 59 frigates. This is an increase from 2005 when it had 63 surface vessels. China also has 205 patrol and coastal ships, which amount to the largest littoral fleet in East Asia.

China has also recently developed its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which is now undergoing sea trials. The Shandong is China’s second aircraft carrier overall, after the refitted Varyag, bought from Ukraine, was converted into the Liaoning. China now joins the United States as the only countries that currently have two or more aircraft carriers. These carriers are designed as a deterrent to encirclement, rather than power projection, the way the United States uses its carriers. China’s carrier program is not an attempt to build a blue water navy for the purposes of expansion and hegemony, but rather for coastal defense. For China, its modernization program is an outgrowth of its primary strategy of jinhai fangyu, coastal defense. It still retains the most dominant littoral fleet in East Asia. Instead of reducing this littoral capacity, China’s new surface ships, including its aircraft carriers, enhances it.

In other words, China’s naval modernization, including its new aircraft carriers are designed to prevent a breakthrough in the first island chain by the United States, Japan, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines. China has aggressively challenged Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China sea to prevent such a breakout.

Naval Strategy

China’s carriers are not, despite worries from the United States to the contrary, meant to cement a wide ranging blue water navy. Instead, they will complement China’s already formidable brown water naval capacity. Likewise, the PLAN’s submarine force has been upgraded as part of its broader anti-access area denial strategy, so that it will assist in preventing a breakthrough in the first island chain by the United States or Japan. The preeminent thought for Chinese naval strategists, conscious of their country’s history, is to defend China’s long eastern seaboard. The PLAN must account for at least four hostile offshore states – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the United States.

Why China is building islands in the South China Sea |Vox

The U.S. and Japan present the most challenges to China, thus its modernization program has mirrored American naval strengths. This is not done as an attempt to push the United States out of the region, (although this may be an ideal goal, even the most optimistic Chinese naval theorist cannot see it as realistic), but to deter against any potential U.S. action to push through the island chain. For that reason, American naval strategists and planners should not expect aggressive Chinese naval actions beyond its inner sea region. Any Chinese aggression in the East China and South China seas will likely match U.S. action in those sea basins, if they are perceived as threatening to the Chinese mainland, (i.e. establishing bases in the Senkaku or Parcel island chains, or further arming Taiwan or the Philippines).

As for Japan, aside from its alliance with the United States, Japan’s current plan to change Article 9 of its pacifist constitution, in order to present a more aggressive military posture, is also a concern for China. Any further action that Japan takes, in terms of upgrading its own military equipment or an increased presence in the East China sea, will likely result in an equal or greater response from China. The PRC will not allow a re-emergence of Japan as a significant maritime power in the region, and the United States may find that Japanese assertiveness may spark an arms race in the East China sea basin. For now, the PRC is content with deterrence and keeping its first island chain from being penetrated by foreign naval forces. Its modernization program is designed for this. China tolerates a large U.S. military presence in Okinawa only because it has little recourse to remove it, but further encroachment in the island chain may bring a stronger Chinese response.

China views its path to great power status, and indeed its path for regime survival, through maritime trade, the backbone of its economy. However, China also is mindful of its complex history with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea in the East China sea basin, seeing what it deems to be an imbalance of power on its eastern seaboard. Through the sea China is vulnerable to invasion. China’s naval modernization, including the development of its first two aircraft carriers, is designed to restore a greater sense of equilibrium to the East China sea basin, and thus prevent a breakthrough through the first island chain by a hostile maritime power.

Growing international criticism of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea and the publication of detailed images of China’s dredging and construction activities prompted the Chinese government to explain in greater detail than ever before the purpose of these activities. In response to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s charge that China has “intensified the militarization in the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and escalated regional tension,” and the release of a series of satellite photos by CSIS of recent dredging and construction activities on Mischief Reef, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying issued a lengthy statement on April 9th, 2015.

In addition to repeating prior positions that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters, and that China’s construction is “fair, reasonable, and lawful,” Hua stated that China’s activities are mainly for civilian purposes, but also are intended to serve “necessary military defense requirements.”

Hua Chunying

That is the first time that the Chinese government has officially acknowledged that its land reclamation activity is intended at least in part for military purposes. On September 9, 2014, when Hua Chunying was asked explicitly whether China’s large-scale reclamation work was intended for commercial or military use, she responded “As far as I know, the construction work China is undertaking on relevant islands is mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands.” On November 24th, 2014, Hua made the same claim, adding that by improving the conditions for the island-stationed personnel, they can better fulfill their international obligations and responsibilities in search and rescue.

Image Courtesy: The Economist

In the April 9, 2015 statement, in addition to acknowledging that China plans to use the outposts for unstated military missions, Hua also provided greater detail about the civilian purposes that the islands will serve. She maintained that China seeks to improve relevant functions the islands and reefs provide, to better safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, to better meet China’s international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, weather observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production services, and other areas.

Hua added that the civilian facilities would provide services to China and its neighboring countries, as well as international vessels sailing in the South China Sea.

In other words, the Chinese are now attempting to assuage concerns about their artificial island building by claiming that these activities are aimed at providing public goods. Chinese researchers are also making this argument. For example, PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo wrote in an article published by China News Agency on March 8, 2015 that large scale radar stations are needed in the South China Sea for communication and monitoring.

Citing the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Yin Zhuo argued for enhanced search and rescue capabilities to respond to possible sea and air accidents. China, he said, has “undisputed responsibility” for maritime search and rescue in the South China Sea based on an International Maritime Organization (IMO) determination in 1985 that “China and Chinese Hong Kong are responsible for the region north of 10 degrees north latitude and west of 124 degrees east longitude.”

Yin Zhuo

Likely in response to accusations by the Philippines that China’s dredging is causing catastrophic damage to the coral reefs, Hua insisted that China had undertaken “scientific assessments and rigorous tests” to ensure that “the ecology of the South China Sea will not be damaged.” That China’s foreign ministry spokesman felt compelled to make this statement suggests that Beijing is at least somewhat concerned that it not be seen as harming the environment. This may be a useful pressure point for the international community going forward. ASEAN might consider asking the Chinese to share their environmental impact studies.

China’s transparency, albeit limited, about its intentions should be welcome and be used as an opportunity to press for additional information as well as reassurance.  China should be urged to match the information it has provided on the potential civilian purposes of its land reclamation activities with similar details about the military functions its garrisons will serve. CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has confirmed that China is building a 10,000 ft. runway on Fiery Cross Reef that could enable China to monitor and potentially control the airspace over the South China Sea, which would provide greater capability to exert sea control. China might even plan to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) similar to the ADIZ it established in November 2013 in the East China Sea.

China’s new maritime rules seek to tighten control over South China Sea | Oneindia News (Oct. 31st, 2021)

Concerned nations should also demand that the Chinese pledge that they will refrain from using these new outposts for destabilizing and coercive conduct. This should include promises not to interfere with freedom of navigation and to forego establishing an ADIZ over disputed maritime areas. To make such commitments palatable to Beijing, they could be included in a Code of Conduct that not only China, but also ASEAN members, agree to. Creating such a legally binding Code is increasingly urgent.

Alan Shaffer

Threat From China Requires Innovative Approach, Says DOD Official


Alan Shaffer, deputy under secretary of defense, acquisition and sustainment, discussed the threat from China and what the U.S. must do to respond to the threat.

He spoke at the Professional Services Council-sponsored Defense Services Conference in Arlington, Va., Nov. 21, 2019.

”We’ve been in conflict with China for 10 years and I’m not sure we know it. But we’ve got to wake up to it,” he warned, citing an example.

How valuable is your intellectual property to you?” Shaffer asked several dozen small and large military contractor executives in the audience.

Very valuable,” they responded.

It better make you mad,” Shaffer said. ”China doesn’t play fair.”

Each year, China steals over half a trillion dollars of IP in the U.S. through human and cyber espionage, he said, citing several reports.

That’s why the Defense Department is pushing hard to have strong standards for cyber protection of venders’ computers and databases, he said.

Another area of national security concern for the U.S. is that China is the only nation in the world with 5G end-to-end network infrastructure, he said, naming Chinese company Huawei that has fielded this network.

The future will be about who can best navigate the digital environment most effectively,” he said. ”We in the West are not in great position now.

Alan Shaffer, deputy under secretary of defense.

An immediate concern for DOD is the electrical grid and other infrastructure, he said.

China, other nations or bad actors could launch a cyber attack and take out the grid, he said. Installations, with their readiness platforms, rely on the grid for operations. Installations must continue to take steps to become self-reliant on vital infrastructure like the grid.

Shaffer then spoke of China’s kinetic power.

Besides the U.S., China is the only other nation that has an operational fifth-generation fighter, he said, noting that European allies are starting to buy the Joint Strike Fighter, so that could change.

He also mentioned China’s formidable fleet of nuclear-capable submarines.

As of today, China cannot match U.S. military power, but they’re a regional threat and their capability and reach is growing, he said.

Shaffer then spoke about the path forward for the department, the challenges, and some solutions.

For decades, the U.S. has not addressed nuclear deterrent modernization, he said.

Now that DOD has an adequate budget, it is addressing this, but it will take time and money for the modernization to be completed, he said, mentioning that 3% of the DOD budget is going for nuclear modernization, but within a decade, that will increase to 6.5%.

He added that other DOD modernization priorities will have to be sacrificed to pay for nuclear modernization.

Regarding hypersonics, an area where China has heavily invested, Shaffer said that to be effective against a great power like China, DOD needs to field many hypersonic weapons, not just a handful.

However, the industrial base cannot scale up to meet the quantities required, he warned.

Shaffer then addressed near-term fiscal pressures.

The most frightening thing to me is that by 2026, the largest part of the discretionary federal budget will be servicing the debt,” he said. ”And, by 2026 the nation will be paying more on interest from our accumulated debt than for the defense of the nation.”

In response to the urgent need to modernize, coupled with fiscal challenges, the department will have to rethink the way it does business, he said, urging industry to help find ways to cut costs and deliver capability more quickly.

The DOD will also need more reform in how it conducts business by further shortening acquisition timelines and getting industry more involved in the requirements process, he said.

Map showing the distribution of gas and oil fields in the South China Sea. Oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea that are currently licensed by the surrounding Southeast Asian claimants are shown in color-coded geometries (Data source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative).

Read also:

How Much Oil and Gas Is Contained in the South China Sea?

by Ethen Kim Lieser

The vast sea is also known to be rich in resources that can help meet the quickly rising energy demands of nearby countries.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, it is estimated that the South China Sea holds about fourteen trillion barrels of natural gas and sixteen to thirty-three billion barrels of oil in proved and proHerebable reserves—most of which are situated along the margins of the South China Sea rather than under the long disputed islets and reefs.

Despite what seems to be high figures, the exploitable oil, in fact, makes up only a tiny percentage of the global supply…

👉 Hydrocarbures reserves in South China Sea (PDF)


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