Tag Archives: East China Sea

The Potential for Panshih: Taiwan’s Expanding Maritime Role

Taiwan has long enjoyed a robust maritime force, intended to defend the island nation from threats both real and perceived across the Taiwan Strait. An arrangement under which the United States will deliver four Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates for use by the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) will only serve to further enhance the country’s maritime power. But perhaps the most interesting development for maritime affairs in the Asia-Pacific region so far in 2015 is the delivery of the ROCS Panshih.

With a total displacement of 20,000 tons and a range of almost 15,000 kilometers, the supply ship Panshih will greatly contribute to the ROCN’s expeditionary capabilities, allowing Taiwan to contribute meaningfully to disaster relief or humanitarian operations anywhere in the region. Historically, Taiwan has lacked this capability, fielding only the ROCS Yuen Feng, a troop transport. Although the ROCN has operated another supply ship for some years, ROCS Wu Yi, the Panshih is significantly larger and possesses much more advanced medical facilities. Reportedly, the Panshih is also only the first of its class – a second ship of an identical design is expected for the ROCN in the next few years.

These ships may soon cruise the seas in a Taiwanese effort to replicate the successes of China’s maritime diplomacy. The Peace Ark, a hospital ship in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has toured extensively since its commissioning in 2008. For example, the Peace Ark was deployed to assist the Philippines in recovering from Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, and later was an important component of the Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2014. Port visits and participation in such multilateral operations enhance China’s “soft power”, whereas observers note that Taiwan has been sidelined for the most part in regional diplomatic affairs. Pursuing a similar theme to China’s charm offensive could be just the remedy to Taiwan’s isolation.

A port of the flight deck on the Panshih.

Yet there is one catch to the Panshih’s particular design. The vessel boasts some offensive capabilities, including a Phalanx close-in weapons system, a 20mm Gatling gun, short-range Sea Chaparral surface-to-air missiles, several .50 calibre machine guns, and 30mm turrets. In contrast, the Berlin-class auxiliary ships employed by the Germany Navy, and which the Royal Canadian Navy will also soon employ as the Queenston-class, have only four MLG 27mm autocannons for defence. China’s Peace Ark is entirely unarmed. While the Panshih’s armaments grant it operational flexibility, they also undermine the vessel’s capacity to act as a soft power tool.

Perhaps the most ideal role for this vessel in the future will be to join relief operations in unstable environments. Taiwan has not contributed much in this area in previous years, with the ROCN focusing almost entirely on defending the Taiwanese coastline from threats across the strait. But there is one success story: in 2011, Taiwan initiated some participation in the European Union’s Operation Atalanta. This constituted an important contribution to international efforts against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. But this is the lone case of active engagement by the ROCN in any initiative beyond the Taiwan Strait. The Panshih could grant Taiwan more options in this regard, since the deployment of fully fledged combat vessels to an area like the Gulf of Aden could be viewed by domestic audiences as weakening Taiwan’s coastal defenses or otherwise as a misuse of Taiwanese defense resources. A supply ship could be more readily spared so far as the public is concerned.

Lending credence to the idea that the Panshih will be used to support humanitarian operations in failed or failing states, the vessel also has impressive hangar space, capable of storing up to three helicopters. The Taiwanese media has focused on the capacity for the ship to serve as a takeoff and landing platform for anti-submarine helicopters, but it is also certainly possible for the ship to serve as a base for transport helicopters ferrying supplies and specialized personnel to inland locations, while also bringing back patients requiring intensive care at the Panshih’s onboard medical facilities. The ROCN’s 19 Sikorsky S-70C(M) Thunderhawk helicopters offer some possibilities in this regard.

In any case, the ROCN now has in its possession a versatile ship. What remains to be seen are how the ROCN will put it to use in the coming years and to what extent this will reflect Taiwanese foreign policy priorities. With such a sophisticated vessel, it would be a shame for Taiwan to keep it docked as backup for a regional conflict that might never, and hopefully will never, come.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at offiziere.ch and was republished by permission.

Sea Control 41: The View From China

seacontrol2Dean Cheng joins us to discuss China. Like a flourless brownie, this podcast is dense and delicious. We hit China’s goals and perspectives: From the Chinese “status quo”, to the South China Sea, to India, to the use of crises as policy tools. If you want to see behind the headlines, this is your podcast.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 41 – The View from China

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The Future of China’s Expeditionary Operations

China’s top maritime priorities will remain in the East and South China Seas. Nevertheless, extended expeditionary ambitions are real. However, more assertive Chinese behavior on blue-waters does not mean that great power conflict is inevitable. The upcoming East Asia Summit may be a forum for finding solutions.

Back to the USSR?

Global Soviet naval presence in the 1980s

China does not seek an overseas presence as the Soviets did in the 1980s. They simply cannot do it yet. The USSR needed decades to establish a global naval presence. For China, it would not be different. However, the world is watching how China is on the march to reach the status of a ‘medium global force projection navy’, comparable to the British and French. In terms of numbers, but not in terms of quality, Beijing’s navy has already surpassed Paris’ and London’s and the naval armament goes on:

During 2013 alone, over fifty naval ships were laid down, launched, or commissioned, with a similar number expected in 2014. Major qualitative improvements are occurring within naval aviation and the submarine force, which are increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland.” (Source: USNI)

Moreover, ‘medium global force projection navy’ does not necessarily mean that there are warships in all oceans. It means that China could globally project power in one or two theaters simultaneously, if its political masters so decide. Besides the question of whether a Chinese naval presence outside the Pacific really would have a serious impact, political prestige must also be taken into account. Britain’s Indian Ocean presence does not make a difference. However, London decides to go there just because they can, and to pretend that Britain is still a global power. Beijing’s political and military elites might feel the same way. Often criticized is China’s military bureaucracy and corruption. However, for naval power projection, it does not matter whether Chinese officers in Xingjang or Tibet are corrupt Maoist bureaucrats.

The PLAN’s second aircraft carrier is under construction. Given a six-year construction time, the new carrier will be commissioned in the early 2020s. Present reports say, moreover, that China aims to build in total at least four carriers. However, except for a research program for nuclear-propulsion, there is not yet credible evidence that one of the carriers will be nuclear-powered. 

PLAN carrier strike groups

Source: China Defense Blog

Accompanied by two destroyers, two frigates and two submarines, China’s carrier has been deployed for the first time to the South China Sea. Militarily, Liaoning‘s trip may just have been an exercise. Politically, however, it was a clear message from Beijing: Our carrier can go to the South China Sea and we are there to stay. This has been the first “show of force” by a Chinese carrier strike group. More will follow. Simple exercises could have been done in closer home waters.

However, the more China invests in carriers, the less money will be available for other capabilities, like cruise missiles or submarines. Criticism on carrier acquisition often ignores that, after World War II, carriers have not been used in open-sea battle between major powers. Instead, carrier operations always targeted weaker countries or supported land operations. Due to the lack of combat experience, the Chinese would never act so irrationally that they would try to take on a US carrier strike group in open battle. If they would, it would end up in a slaughter. Chinese carriers would primarily go for show-of-missions targeted at inferior Indo-Pacific states, like Vietnam or the Philippines.

Moreover, in the earthquake, typhoon, and volcano plagued Indo-Pacific, Chinese carriers are much more likely to go for disaster relief rather than combat. Rather than fighting them, Chinese carriers will join their US counterparts in delivering water, food and medical care. Naval diplomacy and outreach to partners like Brazil will come along, too. However, wherever China’s carriers go, they will have ‘close friends’: US attack submarines.

Indian Ocean deployments

Since 2008 the PLAN has had a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean, officially in order to fight piracy. However, one side effect is the build-up of a new overseas presence. To understand what China could (not) do in the Indian Ocean it makes sense to look back at what the Soviets did. Their naval presence in the Indian Ocean (late 1960s – 1991) was normally between 5-10 surface warships and a few submarines. However, there were no Soviet carrier operations, just due to the lack of carriers. Moscow’s intentions were a show of force, surveillance of US activities (like the SIGINT station on Diego Garcia) and, in case of war, to open up an additional naval front to bind US capabilities, raid US supply lines and prevent US SSBN from striking Central Asia.

China faces the same challenges as the Soviets did: Access through vulnerable choke points; no direct supply line by land and therefore the need for bases or port access; no air bases for immediate air support. As a consequence, China’s approach would not be too different from the Soviets’. Even though the Somali pirates are in retreat and international counter-piracy operations will be downsized, China is likely to somehow keep an Indian Ocean presence out of its national interests.

Chinese LPD Changbaishan (Source: USNI)

The recent Indian Ocean exercises of the Chinese LPD Changbaishan accompanied by two destroyers underline Beijing’s extended expeditionary ambitions. That one of the PLAN’s most sophisticated vessels was sent indicates that further intentions exist. However, for a real deployment such a squadron would need supply ships and tankers.

Nevertheless, in India, China’s exercises caused concern about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Beyond India, weaker Indo-Pacific countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Philippines, and Vietnam were psychological targets of this show-of-force. In Australia, Changbaishan’s Indian Ocean tour led to the perception of a change in its strategic environment. Although a quick and limited tour, the PLAN’s Indian Ocean exercises obviously already matter.

Thus, we will see at least one, probably two PLAN frigates or destroyers in the Indian Ocean accompanied by a supply ship, maybe even an LPD. Port access may be granted by Pakistan, Yemen, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Thereafter, the PLAN could increase its presence gradually based on the gained experience, e.g. ship refueling on open waters. However, that does not mean that China will start fighting in the Indian Ocean. The most likely missions are counter-piracy, military diplomacy, disaster relief, evacuation of Chinese citizens, and contribution to other international operations.

Chinese SSBN in Sanya (Source: China Defense Blog)

Of the PLAN submarines, probably only SSN will continue to operate in the Indian Ocean, due to their operational range. However, unlike the Soviets there will be no Chinese SSBN west of Malacca Strait. Why send them straight into the range of Indian and US anti-submarine warfare capabilities? In home waters, the Chinese can protect their second strike capability with surface warships and air forces.

However, the good news is that China is not going to freeride on the stability in the Indian Ocean that is provided by others, namely the US. Beyond the discussions about conflict, China`s presence will contribute to safe and secure sea lanes and to stability in the wider Indian Ocean area. They will do so simply because it is in China’s national interest.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific

PLAN missile frigate Yangcheng in the Med (Source)

After numerous friendly visits and a 2011 evacuation operation in Libya, the PLAN is now engaged in a real operation in the Mediterranean (Med’). Together with Danish, Norwegian, British, and Russian warships, one PLAN frigate is protecting Danish and Norwegian freighters transporting Syria’s chemical weapons to a US vessel for the c-weapons’ destruction. China’s Med’ deployment is hardly motivated by altruistic regard for what Europeans call “international responsibility”. Instead, the Chinese are just taking any opportunity they get to gain more operational experience.

In addition, China was only able to deploy to the Med’ due to its Indian Ocean presence. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the PLAN operates in European homewaters from Cyprus, an EU member state. Interestingly, a Greek follower commented on this blog (comments are in German) that the EU is almost irrelevant in the Eastern Med’. Given his perspective is right, China stepped into a vaccuum provided by Europe. That is how maritime power shifts become real. However, once Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed, probably in late 2014 or early 2015, China’s Med’ presence will end.

Moreover, we have seen Brazilian-Chinese exercises in the South Atlantic. Brasilia and Beijing seem to be happy with their naval cooperation, which makes its extension very likely. However, aside from the cooperation with Brazil and some friendly port visits, the debate about a Chinese presence in the Atlantic has remained purely hypothetical – and it will remain so for long.

Win wars without fighting

If Peaceful Rise ever was real, it is definitely over. China’s latest Defence White Paper clearly said that China aims to win local wars under the conditions of informationization. Moreover, the White Paper outlined that China would not attack first, but if attacked, it would strike back. However, the White Paper left open what China considers an attack. An attack does not have to be a kinetic strike, but rather China could consider other states’ activities in waters claimed by China as an attack on its national sovereignty.

After China’s soft power was ruined by not immediately responding to the need for disaster relief in the Philippines (they send their hospital ship very late and only after harsh criticism from abroad), China now lets hard power speak. Obviously, Beijing came to the conclusion that it is time to openly pursue a more assertive track, including the use of military power, which does not necessarily mean the use of force.

When talking about China’s military rise, many observers mistake the use of military power for use of military force. Using force is always is always inefficient, due to the costs involved. However, as Sun Tzu outlined, the most efficient way to win a war is not to fight it, but rather allocate military means in a way to impose one’s will on the other side without firing a shot. That is what China is trying to do. They do not follow the Clausewitzian dictum of open war as politics by other means.

China’s ADIZ

China’s recently established ADIZ can be considered a test of this approach. They extended their sphere of influence by the use of military power, but without the use of force. As the test worked quite well from Beijing’s perspective, an ADIZ in the South China Sea could follow. However, China would need much more tanker aircraft for aerial refueling and aircraft carriers for enforcing an ADIZ in the southern South China Sea.

China is now actively seeking – with the use of military power as a means among others – control over areas it has not controlled before. More assertive Chinese behavior and Japanese responses increase the likelihood of unintended conflicts. The US, Japan, and South Korea will have to react to everything China is doing, because they have to save face. For that reason, maritime Asia needs a collective system of conflict prevention.

East Asia Summit: Forum for solutions

Maritime security will be a top geopolitical priority through this decade and beyond. In the 2020s, China and India, both with at least three aircraft carriers, will operate sophisticated blue-water navies. China will project power into the Indian Ocean, while India in response will demonstrate political will in the Western Pacific. Great power conflicts, with or without the use of military force, loom on the horizon, but is not inevitable. Therefore, maritime security will remain on forthcoming East Asia Summit’s (EAS) agenda.

Asian countries, in particular China and Japan, should agree to establish military-to-military hotlines for the opportunity to de-escalate unintended naval incidents. In terms of conflict prevention mechanisms, formal treaties are unlikely, because they would be hard to ratify in all states involved. However, by programs for mutual trust building and collective eschewal from un-announced unilateral measures, the EAS could establish a consensus for an informal modus vivendi in maritime Asia. The greatest plus of an informal modus vivendi would be that such an approach would allow all sides to save face.

Moreover, resource exploration (oil, gas, fish, minerals) have to be put on the EAS’ agenda. With ongoing globalization, increasing population, rising wealth and economic growth, sea-borne trade will grow even further, making these global economic lifelines even more vital for everyone. Now under research, deep-sea mining in the Indian and Pacific Ocean is likely to start in the 2020s. Competition over these resources will lead to the necessity to discuss how conflict can be prevented and how these resources can be used in a way that will suit all parties’ interests. If Asia manages to increase maritime interdependence in trade and resources among all countries and for mutual benefit, this makes armed conflict less likely. No country will strike its own lifelines. 

Felix Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and runs the site Seidlers-Sicherheitspolitik.net (Seidler’s Security Policy).

Follow Felix on Twitter: @SeidersSiPo

Losing the Senkakus/Diaoyus Could Win China the 10-Dash Line

LI5229C2F896F4CThe specter of nationalism in the Far East looms over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  China and Japan have increased their civilian and military presence around the islands and continue retaliatory actions and declarations.  History in the region has few examples of such situations concluding amicably. 

However realist or idealist one’s perspective, there remains significant room for de-escalation and peaceful resolution.  The path to finding a solution has been the focus of many academics, policy experts, and the media with two scenarios offered in the commentary. 

First is what amounts to a Grand Bargain:  China cedes their claims in the East China Sea to Japan in return for Japan’s support of China’s South China Sea claims.  Those who believe this the most likely outcome are those who give deference to China’s long-view strategies.  While China appears to have the patience and political structure to execute strategies with time horizons far beyond those of the United States, a Grand Bargain would be readily discerned and countered as it ultimately relies on the United States, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others to concede interests or territorial claims to China.  That makes for a strategy not only with a long time horizon but also with very long odds.

The second scenario is that China succeeds to some degree in pressing its claims with Japan, using the dispute in the East China Sea as a proving ground for strategies in the south.  Winning territorial concessions from Japan, China’s primary regional competitor, would not only validate its strategies, it would also strengthen China’s position when dealing with weaker competitors bordering the 10-dash line in the South China Sea. Those who predict this outcome tend to believe China will not relinquish any claims. This may be a bit too binary.  First, the territorial disputes in the two regions have very different histories, interests, and actors.  Second, a resolution seen as offering China concessions in the East China Sea could counter-productively strengthen the resolve of the actors disputing China’s claims in the South China Sea.

However, there is another possible scenario.  China could exploit customary international law to its advantage, creating a precedent in the East China Sea simplifies the complexities surrounding the 10-dash line in the South China Sea.  The precedent that best serves Chinese interests is that a country with administrative control over disputed islands exercises economic rights surrounding the territory, even if that country is Japan.  With China in a strong position to enforce administrative control over the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal, a precedent connecting administrative control of disputed territory to economic rights would greatly benefit China.

So, what else needs to happen to make this other potential scenario a reality?  Nothing.  If China continues to bluster about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japan continues to retain administrative control and enforce fishing laws in what would be the territory’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the precedent is established.  Only time is needed for this version of status quo to be considered customary international law.  Interestingly, this path finds a convergence between the long view and expansionist proponents.  China could get access to a lot more territory and natural resources if it is willing to ‘lose a battle to win the war’.

Ryan Leary is a U.S. naval officer and Federal Executive Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  His opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any command.