Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Pearl Harbor 1941: The First Energy War

This article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Charles Maechling, Jr.

In the summer of 1941, Japan had been at war on the mainland of Asia for four years. After amputating Manchuria from China proper in 1931, and recreating it as Manchukuo under a puppet regime, she had plunged into a full-scale war of conquest with China in 1937. But although a Japanese army of well over a million men occupied vast stretches of the Chinese mainland, active hostilities showed no sign of diminishing. Despite the installation of a puppet regime in Nanking, and a campaign of intimidation and brutal reprisals to pacify the conquered areas, the drain of manpower and supplies continued unabated.

Just as today, Japan was wholly dependent on outside sources for the minerals, petroleum, and other raw materials necessary to fuel its economy, which in 1941 was already highly industrialized. In fact, the whole aim of Japan’s program of expansion on the Asian mainland was to carve out a continental economic system, insulated from the forces which had caused the world-wide economic depression, in which raw materials from China and Southeast Asia would flow into Japan for conversion into a stream of manufactured goods aimed at the limitless Asian market. The conquest of China—or more accurately, her forced conversion into a compliant economic partner—was the first step in a grand design called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which was ultimately supposed to embrace Indo-China, Malaysia, and the Dutch colonies of Indonesia.

The Achilles’ heel of Japan’s economy—and the greatest drawback to military ambitions—was her energy resources. Despite the fact that civilian gasoline consumption was minimal, and the Japanese armies were largely unmechanized, Japanese oil consumption, including military, had since 1931 climbed steadily from a level—unbelievably low by modern standards—of about 21 million barrels a year to over 32 million barrels in 1941. (Japan’s current annual consumption is about 2 billion barrels.) The most imperative defense need, on which the safety of the island empire depended, was to ensure ample reserve stocks for the large and powerful imperial navy, and it was largely to this end that Japan, at great pains to her strained economy, had accumulated a stockpile of around 54 million barrels of which 29 million was reserved for the navy.

In 1941 Japan was just as dependent on outside sources for its oil supply as it is today. Domestic production of synthetic fuel amounted to only three million barrels annually; the rest of Japan’s needs—over 90 percent—were made up by imports. In the late ’30s total imports varied from a low of 30.6 million barrels in 1939 to 37.1 million in 1940, the excess over domestic requirements going into the stockpile. Fifteen percent of petroleum imports of all categories came from Venezuela, the Dutch East Indies, and the Middle East—the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf had not yet been developed. Eighty five percent of imports came from one monolithic supplier—Japan’s own private OPEC—the United States of America. And by 1941 relations with the United States had deteriorated to the verge of war.

It had not always been so. The United States had been instrumental in securing a favorable settlement for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, had been an ally in World War I, and was Japan’s most important trading partner. Despite resentment over the Japanese Exclusion Act, there was a considerable reservoir of good will for the United States among the educated classes of Japan and vast admiration for American education and technological achievement. But since 1931, the United States had been the principal and most outspoken opponent of Japanese expansion in Asia. Under the Stimson Doctrine the United States had refused to recognize the puppet regime in Manchukuo and regarded the program for a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere with hostility and moral disapproval—attitudes reinforced by the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese forces in the course of their slow advance through the Chinese provinces. But, until the late ’30s, isolationist sentiment and the rigid constraints of neutrality legislation not only prevented military assistance from being given directly to threatened friendly countries, but inhibited any form of economic sanctions against aggressor nations that might lead to military confrontation. When these policies were finally reversed, it was owing to the tide of German aggression in Europe and the threat to Britain rather than to events in Asia. Even then President Roosevelt was under pressure at first from the Western European powers to avoid a crisis in East Asia until the Nazi menace could be dealt with.

In late 1939, President Roosevelt took the first step toward economic sanctions by imposing a “moral embargo” on sales of aircraft and aviation material. Over the next year, this was expanded to include a wide range of metals and raw materials—rubber, tin, magnesium, molybdenum, aluminum, etc. But where Japan was concerned the administration was careful to avoid any interference with the flow of the most precious commodity of all, oil—this was regarded as too dangerous. In May, 1939. Ambassador Joseph C. Grew in Tokyo had warned the president that “…if we cut off Japanese supplies of oil…and she cannot obtain sufficient oil from other commercial sources to ensure her national security, she will probably send her fleet down to take the Dutch East Indies.”

The outbreak of war in Europe presented the United States with a policy dilemma that took the form of a conflict of priorities. The attention of the president, the press and the American public was riveted on Europe, and after the fall of France on the plight of Britain. The prevailing view was that the Nazi menace to European civilization was the overriding problem of the time. True, the United States was also committed to a policy of resistance to aggression in Asia and support for the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai Shek. But while there was a growing consensus for all-out aid to Britain, opinion was divided on how to cope with the Japanese menace. Within the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau and Secretary of the Interior Ickes. along with elder statesman Henry L. Stimson (soon to become secretary of war) believed that there was “linkage” between all outbreaks of aggression. They pressed for “economic sanctions” against Japan, including the cut-off of scrap iron and oil. But Secretary of State Hull and the State Department, guided by the cautionary warnings of Ambassador Grew, were wary of pushing Japan into an act of desperation that would compound the difficulties of the European colonial powers and divert public attention from Hitler.

The U.S. Navy was even more cautious. Successive chiefs of naval operations had warned the president that until the 1934 naval building program was completed and outlying bases in the Philippines, the central Pacific, and Hawaii were reinforced and fortified, any military confrontation with Japan would find the navy at grave disadvantage. The navy had neither the auxiliary supply vessels nor the carrier air strength to fight its way through the Japanese-mandated Marshall and Caroline Islands, bristling with air bases, to face the formidable Japanese navy in its home waters.

The reluctance of the admirals to risk a military confrontation with Japan became even more pronounced in 1940, after the German submarine campaign to cut supply lines to Britain got underway. Substantial units of the Pacific Fleet, including the destroyers necessary to protect heavy ships from submarine attack, were now being transferred to the Atlantic for patrol and convoy duty. One chief of naval operations, the redoubtable Admiral James O. Richardson, had actually been replaced for pouring cold water on the president’s fantasy of running a cruiser patrol line from the Philippines to Hawaii, and for too outspokenly recommending that the fleet be withdrawn to its West Coast bases because of its vulnerability in Pearl Harbor. When a decision was finally made to give the Atlantic top priority, it made a temporizing stance in the Pacific almost mandatory.

The passage of the Export Control Act in July of 1940, however, gave the president a weapon for retaliating against Japanese expansion without appearing to be punitive. The rearmament program and aid to Britain had produced shortages in some materials and the prospect of future scarcity in others. When in September, 1940, the Japanese moved into bases in the northern region of French Indo-China, President Roosevelt promptly imposed an embargo on the export of scrap iron and steel, citing U.S. defense needs as justification. Soon afterwards he prohibited the export of aviation gasoline and lubricants to all but Britain and western hemisphere countries. But the flow of oil and regular gasoline to Japan continued without interruption. In the embargo year of 1940, Japan’s oil imports from the United States only dropped to 23 million barrels from 26 million the year before.

Meanwhile, Japanese foreign policy had been undergoing reappraisal through a convoluted process which can properly be described as agonizing in the literal sense of the word. The Japanese military—or more properly the army high command—had, since the Manchurian takeover, exercised a baleful influence over civilian cabinets, especially on matters of foreign policy. On several occasions this had reached the point of permitting the assassination, by fanatical young officers, of elderly and conservative ministers who were considered to have “become unworthy” of the Japanese imperial mission. The longer the campaign in China dragged on the more the army high command itself risked loss of face and disgrace in the eyes of the emperor and the people. Fearful of the Soviet menace on the long and exposed Manchurian flank, and frustrated over its inability to settle the “China incident,” the high command was the principal proponent both of closer ties with Germany and Italy and an aggressive move south to achieve the long-promised dream of self-sufficiency in Asia.

On the other side, strong forces were at work for a policy of moderation. These included the nobility, the business and financial leadership, the diplomatic service, and the imperial navy. Though dismayed and resentful over American policies past and present, these circles had a more healthy respect for American industrial might than the insular army and genuinely dreaded the unforeseeable consequences of war with the United States. Compared with the deep geographical, historical and economic bonds that linked the United States and Japan, the new ties with Japan’s far distant allies of expediency, Germany and Italy, seemed somehow flimsy and artificial. In these quarters the unrelenting opposition of the United States to Japan’s program in Asia was upsetting and threatening, but could be tolerated as long as the oil supply remained intact. In the meanwhile, there was always a chance that the “China incident” could be settled, or that the mounting involvement of the United States in the defense of Britain would make some kind of compromise possible.

Before a clean-cut policy could evolve, however, these differences had to be thrashed out within the imperial circle. Although crudely styled “fascist” by American politicians and the press, and lumped in with Germany and Italy as a grinning partner in iniquity, Japan and its political system had little in common with European dictatorships. Except for the predominant influence exercised by the military caste, which was deemed to incarnate the warrior virtues, Japanese society before World War II was no more, or rather no less, “totalitarian” than the “Japan Incorporated” of 1979. Under an overlay of parliamentary forms the Japanese decision-making process was almost morbidly traditional. In all vital questions concerning the future of the empire, decisions were not dictated by an upstart tyrant but reached after a painful process of soul-searching and mutual consultation between the traditional power groups. The resulting consensus, couched in the euphemistic and abstract style unique to Japanese culture, was then given a sort of mystical endorsement by the emperor, after an elaborate ritual called a “Throne Conference” in which all groups were represented.

Predictably, this system often produced policy compromises that embodied fatal contradictions. Typical was the decision reached in the summer of 1940 to install a civilian premier of impeccably conservative stripe, Prince Konoye, to pursue a policy of negotiation with the United States, while at the same time the army was given a limited mandate to obtain bases in French Indo-China. Then in September, 1940, under pressure from the army high command, Japan signed a defensive alliance with Germany and Italy known as the Tripartite Pact. The terms of the pact had no operative effect except in the event of a future attack on one of the parties by an unspecified outsider, but the Axis label it now gave Japan was to have a devastating political effect and prove a serious impediment to negotiations with the United States. It would henceforth be extraordinarily difficult for President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to make meaningful concessions to Japan without the risk of being called appeasers.

At about the same time Japan took steps to solve the problem of its oil dependence. Civilian consumption of gasoline was cut from 6-7 million barrels annually to 1.6 million. By diversifying supply she managed in 1940 to reduce the proportion of oil imports from U.S. sources down to 60 percent as compared to the prior level of 80 percent. But the attitude of the United States, combined with disruption of the international oil market and competing demands of the warring powers, made reliance on distant sources imprudent to say the least. The one alternative closer at hand, on which Japan had cast covetous eyes for years, was the Dutch East Indies, now cut off from the mother country by the German sweep through Western Europe.

In June, 1940, immediately after the Nazi occupation of Holland, Japan demanded assurances from the colonial government in Batavia that exports of oil and mineral exports to Japan would be maintained at present levels. This was merely a stopgap, however, taken more out of fear of German intentions than anything else.

In September, 1940, a large Japanese mission was dispatched to Batavia to make “proposals” to the colonial government for access to raw materials on a greatly increased scale. Oil was given top priority: oil imports from the Dutch Indies were 4.5 million barrels a year, and now the Japanese demand was for a guarantee of 22 million barrels annually. This would have represented 40 percent of the annual production of the Indies at that time (55 million barrels) and a figure almost exactly equal to the current level of Japan’s oil dependence on the United States. The Dutch colonial administration, however, though well aware of its vulnerability, proved tough and obstinate. It protracted the negotiations over nearly three months, and when in November an agreement was finally reached, the Japanese were granted 14.5 million barrels annually and no more. Even this amount was made subject to the concurrence of the oil companies and hedged about with escape clauses.

In the winter of 1940-41 the war reached a condition of temporary stalemate with American attention increasingly focused on the plight of Britain. In April, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and inflicted heavy defeats on the British in Crete and North Africa. In May, President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency. During this period the pendulum in Japan again oscillated and a new Japanese ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, known to be well-disposed to the United States, was sent to Washington with a fresh set of proposals. In essence these offered a freeze of Japanese military operations in Asia and a promise to negotiate peace with Chiang Kai Shek. In return, Japan requested from the United States a lifting of all embargoes on critical items, resumption of normal trade relations, American assistance in obtaining a continuing supply of raw materials from Southeast Asia, and the exercise of influence on Chiang Kai Shek to force him to negotiate peace terms with Japan in good faith. The State Department agreed to discuss these proposals, but after fifty private meetings between Secretary Hull and Ambassador Nomura in the Spring of 1941, no basis for agreement could be found. The United States clung to its rigid formulations—withdrawal from Indo-China, acceptance of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for the territorial integrity of China as preconditions for negotiations. These Japan could not accept.

In June, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the same month the United States suspended all petroleum exports to Japan from East Coast and Gulf ports, throwing supply contracts into temporary disarray. The handwriting was now on the wall, even though once again genuine shortages caused by U.S. military demand and shipments to British forces in the Middle East had prompted the action. The new factor was that at long last the Soviet threat along the Manchurian border had been neutralized. Pressed by the army high command, the Japanese establishment again went into conclave, and in a Throne Conference in July it was agreed that the empire now had no choice but to resume the march southward. Planning was ordered for the military conquest of Malaysia, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, to be combined with preparations for war with the United States, Great Britain, and Holland. But no specific deadlines were set. On July 24th the Japanese, with the reluctant acquiescence of the Vichy government, occupied key positions throughout French Indo-China. Two days later the dreaded blow fell.

On July 26th President Roosevelt ordered the freezing of all Japanese funds and other assets in the United States and the placing of all petroleum exports to Japan under embargo subject to license. Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit. It was originally intended to use the licensing authority as a lever for further bargaining or to avert a crisis. But it soon became apparent that in the current political climate no licenses could be issued and none ever were. The oil cut-off was now complete and Japan was thrown back on her stockpile. To quote from a leading historian of the period: “There was no way, no uncontrolled source of supply from which Japan could get as much as it would have to use even with the most rigid economy. Ton by ton, it could be foreseen, Japan would have to empty the tanks which had been filled with such zealous foresight…From now on the clock and the oil gauge stood side by side. Each fall in the level brought the hour of decision closer.” (Feis, The Road To Pearl Harbor, p. 244.)

The oil embargo represented a triumph for the hard-liners of the Roosevelt administration who were convinced that an oil cut-off would force Japan to its knees. The navy, however, again stressing U.S. naval inferiority in the Pacific—now outnumbered in aircraft carriers by 10-3—had strongly urged delay at least until air and ground forces of the Philippines could be strengthened. Ambassador Grew had once more cautioned that if pushed to the wall it was in the Japanese character to react violently and without warning. According to the historical records, President Roosevelt believed that although he was running a risk, it was one that did not close off his options or entail serious consequences to the United States. He was reassured in this regard by the virtual unanimity of his advisers that if Japan struck it would be against Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. The safety of the United States was not considered at issue.

In Japan the freezing of its assets and the embargo on oil was greeted with shock and dismay. Any mitigation of popular feeling against the United States was prevented by sightings of U.S. tankers headed for Vladivostok with oil for Soviet armies. By August, 1941, there was only a 12-month supply of fuel left for the army, and an 18-month supply for the navy.

When the Japanese records and diplomatic cables of the four months preceding Pearl Harbor were published after the war they revealed an atmosphere of desperation. In October a hardline cabinet headed by General Hideki Tojo replaced the now discredited ministry of Prince Konoye. Three more Throne Conferences were held, of which the last, on November 5, 1941, committed the emperor irrevocably to war unless a last minute diplomatic solution could be found. At the same time a final effort was authorized to reach some kind of compromise or modus vivendi that would restore the flow of oil without forcing Japan to totally abandon her acquisitions in Asia. Accordingly, new proposals embodying further concessions were carried to Washington by a special envoy, Saburo Kurusu, who henceforth participated with Admiral Nomura in all negotiations. These went so far as to agree to immediate Japanese withdrawal from Indo-China, renunciation of further expansion in Asia, and withdrawal from most of China upon conclusion of a peace treaty with Chiang Kai Shek. It was made plain that Japan was prepared to treat the Tripartite Pact as a nullity. But in the end, like all previous diplomatic efforts, these proposals foundered on the rock of an irreconcilable conflict. Japan would not totally withdraw from the Asian mainland and return to a pinched and impoverished existence on its overcrowded islands. The United States would not accept a compromise that left Japan in physical domination of any part of China. Under pressure from Chiang Kai Shek, Secretary Hull on November 26th confronted the Japanese negotiators with a reversion to the earlier U.S. demand for complete Japanese withdrawal from China. Repeated Japanese pleas for a summit meeting between Prince Konoye and President Roosevelt were met with stony silence.

Throughout these events, the highest circles of the Roosevelt administration were at all times aware of Japan’s sincere desire for a negotiated settlement. Since August, 1940, the president, Secretary Hull, and the civilian and military heads of the army and navy had followed every twist and turn of Japanese policy through the secret cable and radio traffic of the Japanese themselves. Cryptographic experts of the United States Army Signal Corps, headed by the legendary William E. Friedman, had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, styled PURPLE. Thereafter, intercepts of messages from Tokyo to its overseas embassies and consular posts were on Secretary Hull’s desk within a few hours of receipt. After the oil cut-off in July 1941 the president and his advisers not only knew of Japan’s desperation, but of its intention to take drastic military measures unless the embargo was lifted. All indicators pointed to an outbreak of war on either the weekend of December 1st or December 7th, with Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines to be the immediate objectives. But partly owing to the indirection employed by the Japanese in communicating with each other, and partly to the tight security imposed by the Japanese military—whose codes were still unbroken—there was no certainty precisely when and where the first blows would fall. On November 27, 1941 a general war warning was sent to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, the army’s Hawaiian department, and General MacArthur in Manila. Not a hint of impending war was given to Congress, the press, or the American public.

The Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941—the “date that will live in infamy”— lives in history as the military catastrophe that plunged America into World War II. But for the Japanese naval staff, the attack was essentially a sideshow introduced out of excessive deference to the “worst case scenario.” Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander, had convinced himself, in the teeth of all the evidence of American naval inferiority in the Pacific, that only if the U.S. battle fleet was dealt a knockout blow would his convoys be secure from interception and time afforded to build a defensive ring around the new conquests.

That the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic and political blunder of the first magnitude became apparent only later. Instead of trapping underarmed battleships far from their home base, they were sunk in shallow water where they could be raised and modernized to fight again. Instead of confronting President Roosevelt with the dilemma of how to persuade a refractory Congress to declare war on Japan in defense of the British and Dutch colonial empires, while resisting the Nazi menace across the Atlantic, the attack brought a unified America headlong into war.

What followed can properly be called the first energy war. Oil was not the primary cause of the steady deterioration of relations between the United States and Japan, but once employed as a weapon it made hostilities inevitable. Historians continue to debate endlessly about the extent to which President Roosevelt provoked the attack, but two lessons stand out: Regardless of the legal and moral rectitude of its position, the United States recklessly cut the energy lifeline of a powerful adversary without taking due regard of its own preparedness and the predictably explosive consequences. When the victim struck back he blundered badly and thereby unleashed forces of incalculable fury.

It could all happen again—but in reverse!

Charles Maechling, Jr., Washington lawyer and former State Department officer, was on the secretariat of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1943-1944. 

Featured Image: The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. USS-Arizona (BB-39) is in the center. To the left are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). (Naval History and Heritage Command NH: 97378. Colorized by Irootoko Jr.)

Ships of State: Chinese Civil-Military Fusion and the HYSY 981 Standoff

By Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack

Introduction

On a late June morning in 2014, Vietnamese fisheries inspection vessel KN 951 approached HYSY 981 (海洋石油981), a Chinese-owned mobile oil platform operating within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Three Chinese state-owned commercial vessels retaliated by spraying, ramming, and chasing KN 951 for approximately 11.5 nautical miles, ultimately doing substantial damage to the Vietnamese vessel’s hull. During the pursuit, these three Chinese tugboats displayed a considerable degree of tactical coordination: there is video footage showing that two boats worked in tandem to “T-bone” KN 951 while a third tug positioned itself in front of the Vietnamese vessel to prevent it from escaping. With the fifth anniversary of the HYSY 981 standoff on the horizon, reexamining it in the context of China’s civil-military fusion concept reveals Beijing’s strategic thinking on the role China’s merchant marine could play in future conflict.

Civil-military fusion (CMF) is a defining strategic concept in China’s quest to modernize its armed forces. A core component of the concept is improving national defense mobilization for both peaceful and wartime operations by integrating civilian personnel, equipment, and capabilities with military logistics systems. Burgeoning links between civilian actors and military bodies has led to, among other developments, agreements between the Joint Logistics Support Force and civilian-owned companies, as well as agreements between such firms and specific branches of China’s armed forces. In the maritime domain, agents of China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) have supplied People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) escort ships in the Gulf of Aden. Military exercises also use commercial semi-submersible transport ships as mobile docks, with the goal of moving materiel and repairing combat-damaged warships.

Civilian-military logistical cooperation in wartime is not uncommon. Yet the HYSY 981 standoff of 2014 is a striking display of how Chinese civilian infrastructure, nominally peaceful in purpose, might be summoned to assist in achieving national security objectives outside of war and how civilian equipment could be used in conflict. It also provides further evidence for an oft-heard but difficult-to-prove claim: Beijing sees state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their assets (as well as those of private companies) as dual-use and may consider using them aggressively to achieve China’s goals internationally.

Joint Operation

The HYSY 981 standoff began in May 2014, as a China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) mobile drilling platform moved into disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands on behalf of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). It was the opening of a bold play to enforce Beijing’s jurisdiction over the surrounding area. The U.S. Department of Defense described the standoff as “Using [a] Hydrocarbon Rig as a Sovereignty Marker.” This apt description was presaged two years earlier at HYSY 981’s unveiling when CNOOC’s Chairman and Party Secretary lauded the platform as “mobile national territory” in 2012 and, later, described HYSY 981 as a “strategic weapon.” Vietnam protested HYSY 981’s deployment through diplomatic representations and its coast guard, law enforcement, and fishing vessels harassed HYSY 981’s mission. The standoff lasted approximately two and a half months, with clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese non-military assets a common occurrence.

The HYSY 981 standoff has been judged to be the largest joint operation between China’s three main sea forces: the PLAN, the Coast Guard (CCG), and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Deployed to Vietnamese-claimed waters until July 15, 2014, the HYSY 981 platform was defended from Vietnamese challengers by three concentric security rings (i.e., cordons) primarily comprising CCG and PAFMM assets. PLAN vessels, as well as PLA aircraft, provided overwatch support. Yet a fourth fleet participated as well: China’s merchant marine. Over the summer, roughly 30 commercial transport ships and tugboats also defended the oil platform.

The June 23 incident was not an anomaly. Within just five days of the platform’s entrance into Vietnam’s claimed EEZ, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels clashed nearly 200 times. Videos of the standoff show how commercial vessels repeatedly worked in tandem with CCG assets to spray, ram, and otherwise harass Vietnamese vessels that approached HYSY 981. Thus, China’s merchant marine not only served as passive deterrents in the security rings around the rig, but became active combatants in the conflict.

Chinese ship rams a Vietnamese vessel in the HYSY 981 standoff in 2014. (Thanh Nien News NewsVietnam.org)

Open source ship tracking data (i.e., AIS data) show that Chinese commercial vessels assumed distinct patrol patterns around HYSY 981. For example, two ships—Hai Shan (海山) and Zhong You Hai 226 (中油海226)—appear to have been assigned guard duty south and southeast of the platform, respectively. They maintained these relative positions throughout the summer. When HYSY 981 repositioned halfway through its deployment (on May 27), these vessels moved with the platform and maintained their patrols. Further, AIS data suggests these, and other, vessels may have used Triton Island as a staging area. Confirmation of this interpretation—that these vessels were not merely working in the vicinity of the rig—is found in the open source: Hai Shan’s manager praises the vessel’s role in providing security for HYSY 981 on the company website.

Combatant IDs

Chinese companies risked losing hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial assets by allowing their vessels to engage in the standoff. Moreover, HYSY 981 and the vessels involved sparked mass protests in Vietnam, which imperiled the overseas investments of Chinese businesses and ultimately led to the evacuation of thousands and deaths of more than 20 Chinese nationals in the protests. Many questions naturally follow. Among them, who are the owners of these brazen vessels, and why would they risk valuable assets in such an audacious manner?

Accounts of the standoff estimated that approximately 30 commercial vessels, not including fishing vessels, participated in the security cordons around HYSY 981. Ten of these are identifiable, along with their owners, in the open source and through AIS tracking. All ten are owned, respectively, by just three SOE subsidiaries: 

  • CNPC Offshore Engineering Co. Ltd. (CPOE) owns five of the ten vessels. CPOE is a wholly-owned subsidiary whose sole investor is China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a national-level SOE that is directly owned by the State Council. CNPC had leased HYSY 981 to drill in the disputed waters.
  • China Oilfield Services Limited (COSL) owns two of the ten vessels—Binhai 284 and Binhai 285—both of which participated in the June 23, 2014 attack on KN 951. COSL also manages HYSY 981. Corporate records show that COSL is majority owned by CNOOC. COSL’s remaining shares (49.47 percent) are currently held by government controlled funds in China and Hong Kong. In turn, CNOOC is a SOE wholly-owned by China’s Ministry of Finance and owns HYSY 981.
  • Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited owned the remaining three vessels, including Hia Shan, You Lian Tuo 10, and You Lian Tuo 9—the third tug boat that joined the June 23, 2014 maneuver. Corporate records reveal that Yiu Lian Dockyards is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Merchants Group (CMG), one of China’s oldest and largest SOEs.

The appearance of SOE assets in a quasi-military operation raises the question of government involvement. Although Chinese oil SOEs, particularly CNOOC, have actively lobbied Beijing for permission to drill in the South China Sea since 2008 with some success, they have also been denied over concerns about conflict with Vietnam. Further, certain CNOOC projects are allegedly protected by CCG vessels at the company’s request, indicating that the company likely does not routinely provide physical security using its commercial ships or those of its subsidiaries. Moreover, SOEs alone would not have had the authority or capacity to unilaterally coordinate the PLAN, CCG, and PAFMM in defense of HYSY 981.

Chain of Command

China’s National Defense Mobilization Law of 2010 gives the State Council and Central Military Commission authority, typically through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the Chairman of the State, to mobilize civilian assets for national defense when “the sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity or security of the state is threatened.” Although there is no direct evidence that the state relied on these structures, explicit government involvement came on May 8, 2014—a week after HYSY 981 moved into position. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CNOOC’s subsidiary COSL held a press conference responding to Vietnamese retaliation. Yi Xianliang of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs and Li Yong, COSL’s President and CEO at the time, threatened to increase security in the area. This threat was swiftly carried out; within days of the conference, AIS data show that Bin Hai 284 and 285—the two COSL vessels that attacked KN 951 in June—began moving south from Beijing toward HYSY 981. To the end of the standoff, China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokespeople emphasized that HYSY 981’s mission was entirely within China’s sovereign rights. Chinese officials further argued that it was Vietnam who militarized the incident by sending armed ships, whereas China, officials asserted, only dispatched civilian vessels, thereby “preserving utmost restraint.”

In this file image from June 23, 2014, released by Vietnam’s Coast Guard, Chinese vessels purportedly ram a Vietnamese fishery control vessel, while another Chinese ship fires a water cannon, in a disputed area of the South China Sea. (Vietnam Coast Guard)

Further evidence of direct state support is found in how the Chinese government incentivized participation in the operation. During the standoff, a small private firm named Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. managed three vessels on behalf of Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited. Defending HYSY 981 became a point of pride for Qingdao Kilter. The company’s website states that, “the oil industry has given [the company] high praise. Especially, between April 27 and July 22, Hai Shan, You Lian Tuo 9, and 10 defended HYSY 981 in the Paracel Islands, … for which [the company] received positive evaluations and commendations from high-level leadership in all areas.”

One of the commendations bestowed on Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. was a second-class merit award (二等功) that went directly to a tug boat captain named Li for their part in the operation. Further tying this award to the Beijing, chapter 1 article 7 of the National Defense Mobilization Law states that honors will be given to civilians and organizations that make significant contributions to national defense mobilization. Notably, a second-class merit was conferred on all commanders, combatants, and logistics personnel 40 years earlier, when China originally wrested control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam.

Lessons Learned

The HYSY 981 incident demonstrates for foreign powers how China’s merchant marine may interface with military and paramilitary forces in maritime conflict, furthering state aspirations, and hints at how Beijing elicits and rewards participation. But questions remain: why did Beijing mobilize the merchant marine for this operation and in what circumstances might it consider doing so again?

To the former, it is possible that Beijing required SOEs to contribute to the rig’s defense in exchange for approving the project in the first place. This may explain why the majority of identified commercial vessels belonged to COSL and CNPC and their subsidiaries. Another possibility is that these ships were mobilized to augment the capacity of the maritime militia. The maritime militia is primarily comprised of civilian fishermen who are compensated to participate in paramilitary operations. There is some evidence that militia members may have initially resisted participation in the HYSY 981 mission due to limited incentives, and thus the merchant marine may have been called upon to offset a force deficit.

To the latter, it is possible that Beijing was testing the use of its merchant marine in conflict both as a test of efficiency and how foreign actors might respond. Just as the PAFMM is employed to assert China’s interests in its near-seas below the threshold of war, the merchant marine could be used to do the same farther abroad. Already, the Chinese merchant marine and civilian transport companies are expected to facilitate long-range naval missions globally. Even outside of the Gulf of Aden, Chinese companies operating in foreign countries resupply warships. In the years following the standoff, China has formalized aspects of the dynamics on display in 2014 by promulgating new legislation. In 2015 and 2016, new laws further required all “container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and break bulk” vessels be built to military standards and that “all SOEs conducting international transport services and their overseas institutions must provide re-supply and rest and re-organization assistance for all ships, planes, vehicles, and personnel involved in military operations for international rescue, maritime escort, and the defense of national interests overseas.” 

Strategic Challenge

In building itself into a “great maritime power” capable of projecting power and influence far afield, China is employing both military and economic means. Chinese SOEs now dominate international shipping lanes and ports, enjoying control of or influence in over half of the world’s top 50 container ports—investments that have the potential to reshape operating environments in critical waterways. At the same time, China controls the world’s largest merchant marine (counting by vessels owned and registered in the country) of 2,008 ships (not including tugboats or fishing vessels), which the Chinese military thinks of as a “strategic delivery support force” to enhance Beijing’s maritime projection.

Many countries rely on their merchant marine fleets to provide logistical support to the military during war and peaceful long-range patrols, but the HYSY 981 standoff suggests that Beijing believes commercial assets are legitimate instruments of aggression in peacetime. Similar logic is seen frequently in the activities of China’s PAFMM fishing vessels, which is one of only two militias in the world that has a mandate to defend internationally disputed territorial claims, even in peacetime. China’s apparent willingness to leverage commercial assets—particularly SOE assets—as critical tools of foreign policy coercion has global security implications.

In 2015, the HYSY 981 platform was prominently featured at an Achievements of Civil-Military Fusion Development in the National Defense Technology Industry Exhibition alongside other dual-use systems and technologies, such as remote sensing and surveillance planes, satellites, and water-pressurized nuclear reactors. Yet the standoff shows that CMF is more than civil-military cooperation on science and technology or research and development (on which most CMF research in the West has focused). It is also more than the adaptation of civilian infrastructure for military logistics and defensive mobilization. CMF opens the door for direct civilian participation in conflict. The HYSY 981 standoff shows this to be the case in the maritime arena, and in other domains (specifically network warfare) Chinese strategists explicitly call for civilian participation in combat.

Conclusion

As CMF drives state-owned and private firms closer to the Chinese military, countries and corporations should appropriately evaluate the risks and rewards of certain Chinese investment. Chinese SOEs may pose the greatest risk, as they are directly controlled by the State. Moreover, they have deep capital reserves, enabling them to operate broadly across regions and industries, as well as potentially absorb substantial losses that market-driven businesses may not survive. Finally, many SOE subsidiaries are publicly traded on international markets, creating the impression that these companies are purely motivated by profits. Indeed, a CNOOC subsidiary is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Such impressions can be accurate, but the dual-use nature of SOEs and the inherent risks of civilian mobilization potentially stemming from CMF agreements demand heightened scrutiny of Chinese investments abroad.

Devin Thorne (@D_Thorne) and Ben Spevack (@BenSpevack) are analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C. Thorne holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, located in China, where he previously studied and worked. He speaks Chinese, and his past experience includes conducting research for the U.S. Department of State and the Hudson Institute. Spevack received his degree in International Relations from Tufts University. He speaks Chinese, Russian, and French, and has studied and worked in China, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. They have briefed their previous research on China’s strategic application of dual-use maritime infrastructure to high-level officials at the U.S. Department of Defense, presented at international security conferences, and been cited in multiple congressional testimonies.

Featured Image:  A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014. (Reuters)

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)

A Question of Time: Improving Taiwan’s Maritime Deterrence Posture

The following essay is adapted from a report published by George Mason University’s Center for Security Policy Studies: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture

By Joe Petrucelli

Just last month two U.S. Navy warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait, reminding the world that the status of Taiwan remains contested and unresolved. Although China prefers to use peaceful means to achieve unification, it has not taken the possibility of force off the table. Accordingly, Taiwan remains one of the few states to endure the plausible risk of military invasion.

After visiting Taiwan to study this problem, a team of researchers, including the author, recently released a report advocating for a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s conventional deterrence posture. Among our recommendations, we call for Taiwan’s navy to change its current acquisition priorities and embrace an unconventional-asymmetric doctrine of sea denial.

We suggest this shift in maritime strategy because of what we termed Taiwan’s deterrence trilemma. At a strategic level, Taiwan must simultaneously accomplish three goals that exist in tension with each other:  

  • It must counter China’s grey zone challenges, which means Taiwan must project symbolic strength across its airspace and territorial waters;
  • It must raise the costs of invasion, which means it needs forces that can prolong any conflict and inflict unacceptable losses on the invaders; and
  • It must do both of these things in a resource-constrained environment defined by a general unwillingness to significantly increase defense spending

At least in the near term, a military invasion remains unlikely since the PLA faces a number of obstacles that complicate its ability to mount a successful invasion. Nonetheless, time is on China’s side and Taiwan’s naval doctrine and force posture remain misaligned. Although Taiwan has revised its strategy to emphasize multi-domain, asymmetric deterrence, it remains focused on purchasing high-end, high-capability systems such as the F-35B fighter, Aegis-like destroyers and diesel submarines, the “darlings of their service chiefs.” 

We argue that Taiwan should enhance its deterrence posture by adopting a more coherent and holistic approach. Specifically, we recommend that it adopt an elastic denial-in-defense strategy, which will consist of three core elements:

  • Accept risk in the grey zone. Grey zone aggression does not constitute an existential threat allowing Taiwan to rebalance its force to maintain “just enough” capability to push back against grey zone challenges, such sufficient naval strength to prevent and intercept unwanted excursions into Taiwanese waters;
  • Prioritize denial operations. Specifically, divest as many costly, high-tech platforms as possible so as to invest in large numbers of relatively low-cost, counter-invasion capabilities. This would raise the cost associated with bringing a hostile force close to Taiwan’s shores; and
  • Invest in popular resistance. The prospect of waging a prolonged insurgency will likely deter China’s leadership far more than the threat of fighting a relatively small, conventional force.

We are not the first to propose shifting to an asymmetric maritime force to deny China use of the seas as an invasion corridor. Numerous reports and analyses have suggested specific maritime platforms Taiwan should acquire to execute a sea denial strategy, such as fast missile boats, semi-submersibles, mini-submarines, mines, and coastal defense cruise missiles. We entirely agree with these recommendations and note that to date, despite talk of an asymmetric strategy, Taiwan has made only marginal changes. For example, while it has modestly increased its inventory of missile boats and anti-ship cruise missiles, Taiwan’s navy remains anchored around a relatively small and therefore vulnerable inventory of high-end platforms. 

The political reality is that Taiwan’s navy faces major resource constraints and so must make difficult choices. Accordingly, Taiwan should defer its high-profile procurement priorities, especially the Aegis-like destroyer and the Indigenous Diesel Submarine (IDS). These are technically challenging programs, especially given Taiwan’s lack of experience building similar platforms. Additionally, they are expensive enough that Taiwan will not be able to field them in large numbers and ultimately remain vulnerable to Chinese long-range strike and anti-access weapons systems. Taiwan’s current naval fleet, although aged, is sufficient to “show the flag” and resist grey-zone aggression for the near future. Instead of these planned procurements, Taiwan should significantly increase the numbers of low-cost, lethal platforms, even at the expense of other planned procurements.

These lower cost platforms, by the larger numbers procured, complicate adversary targeting and improve their force-level survivability against PLA strike capabilities. Taiwan should start by fielding a larger fleet than currently envisioned of its stealthy Tuo Jiang missile corvette and build on the lessons learned from these small corvettes to field a future small frigate. Both can fulfill peacetime missions but be built in large enough numbers to possibly survive in a wartime environment. By delaying the more ambitious destroyer and IDS programs and starting with smaller, less expensive projects, Taiwan can best prioritize limited resources.

This incremental approach also helps develop relevant technical capability, so that potential future submarine and large surface combatant programs are less technically risky when it becomes fiscally and strategically appropriate to build them. The immediate savings from delaying the destroyer and IDS programs can be diverted into the sea denial platforms that Taiwan needs now, ranging from the small frigate discussed above to even smaller missile boats, mini-subs and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.

Moreover, Taiwan should eliminate its entire amphibious force. Bluntly speaking, Taiwan’s amphibious assault ships are strategically unnecessary as they are not immediately useful for confronting limited challenges to Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty or other “grey zone” aggression. They also have no ability to counter a cross-strait invasion. Rather than procure expensive amphibious assault ships and maintain aging landing craft, which generate sizable sustainment costs, Taiwan should retire this entire force. It can then shift these savings into further investments in counter-invasion capabilities.

Because Taiwan’s Marine Corps would be losing its sealift, it should be rebranded as Taiwan’s premier counter-amphibious force so as to fill a gap between the navy’s sea denial role and the army’s ground denial mission. Specifically, it would specialize in defending possible landing zones with mines and spread out hard points in addition to engaging landing craft with dispersed, near-shore weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles.

These proposals to transform Taiwan’s naval strategy and procurement plans would produce a force capable of waging a sea denial campaign against a conventionally superior opponent, tailored to the specific threat of a cross-Strait invasion. The changes in naval force structure would be mirrored throughout Taiwan’s armed forces, to include a reduction in army ground strength, the termination of plans to procure F-35B fighters, and accelerated procurement of similar asymmetric capabilities. To invest in popular resistance, we recommend transforming Taiwan’s two-million-man Reserve Force into a Territorial Defense Force prepared to conduct a lengthy insurgency campaign. By abandoning plans for a decisive battle and shifting to a posture that increases invasion costs and prevents a quick victory, Taiwan can better deter China.

Read about these recommendations and more in the full report: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture.

Joe Petrucelli is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a currently mobilized U.S. Navy reserve officer. The analysis and opinions expressed here are his alone and they do not represent those of the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Tuo Jiang-class missile boat in service with the Taiwanese Navy. (Defense Ministry of Taiwan)