Tag Archives: PLAN

Another Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

As part of a broader project of land reclamation, beginning in November China started efforts to develop Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. As of late November the reef had been built up to 3,000 meters long and between two and three hundred wide. This makes it large enough, in the assessment of analysts with IHS Jane’s and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to argue that China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands might be under development. China already has a growing airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels a several hundred miles north, and this would not be the first airstrip in the Spratly Islands; Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia all have airstrips of their own. If a runway is truly planned for Fiery Cross Reef, what does this mean for the region’s security environment?

Given the distances involved, and the PLA’s relatively limited aerial refueling capabilities, Chinese forces stationed on or operating near the Spratly Islands cannot currently count on sustained air coverage from mainland China. The USCC report notes that an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef would allow the PLA to project air power much further out to sea than current possible. Initially, an airstrip would allow for aerial replenishment of the small garrison on Fiery Cross Reef. The airstrip could also almost immediately be used for emergency landings or refueling, both of PLA aircraft and any civilian aircraft in distress.  The PLAN or PLAAF could also deploy ISR assets, most probably unmanned, increasing PLA situational awareness for minimal footprint. This idea is supported by a statement made by Jin Zhirui, an instructor at the Air Force Command School.

1569998_-_mainThe airstrip would additionally enable parts or stores to be flown to the reef and then dispatched to local PLAN vessels via helicopter. This is, for example, an advantage that the island of Bahrain provides for US Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and Diego Garcia provides in the Indian Ocean. In fact, Andrew Erickson speculates development may lead to an island twice the size of Diego Garcia. This would partly address the PLAN’s deficiency in replenishment ships and allow quick turnaround for critical repair parts to maintain vessels at sea even in the face of inevitable equipment breakdown. These uses for an airstrip are relatively benign compared with how the airstrip could develop.

If the reef is expanded sufficiently it could serve as a platform for permanent basing of PLA combat aircraft which would alter the military balance of the region.  China would be able to sustainably project air power further into the South China Sea than currently possible. The reef – or to use the potentially loaded term island, as it would realistically be – would also serve as an unsinkable adjunct to the Liaoning (CV-16). David Shlapak argues that Liaoning will significantly improve Chinese combat capabilities in the South China Sea; an island airstrip would do the same and would not have to return to the mainland for maintenance. The island could also support larger aircraft with heavier payloads than the PLAN’s carrier. Candidates for basing on Fiery Cross Reef include the J-10 air superiority fighter with a roughly 600nm operational radius, J-11 air superiority fighter with a 700nm radius, or the JH-7 attack aircraft with a 900nm range. All are capable of carrying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles with varying degrees of capability. A 3,000 meter runway could also support aerial refueling aircraft or the H-6 bomber, further increasing the PLA’s options for aerial patrols and strikes. 

Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.
Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.

The satellite imagery of the reclamation work originally published by IHS Jane’s also shows work progressing on a port facility. The progress to date on the port does not give a concrete indication of its final size or depth, but even a rudimentary logistics base would give the PLAN greater sustainability for operations in the area. While the airstrip would allow parts and stores delivery to PLAN vessels, pier facilities would allow more intensive repairs to be conducted in theatre, further extending the staying time of ships in the area. The port could also facilitate the permanent or rotational stationing of China Coast Guard vessels or small combatants like the Houbei-class fast attack craft, giving Beijing a more durable maritime presence.

If development of the reef plays out as current evidence indicates, it would alter the military situation by allowing Chinese aircraft and ships to more sustainably project power further from mainland China. This affects regional navies’ contingency plans for conflict in the South China Sea. They have to anticipate that Chinese maritime operations will have near-continuous air coverage throughout the area. The construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef also impacts US Navy planning for any possible conflict with China as it extends China’s A2/AD umbrella several hundred miles. Deploying air and surface search radars to the reef alongside air superiority and maritime strike aircraft would add another layer of defense capability that the US Navy or Air Force would have to account for. It is too early to say how the developments on Fiery Cross Reef will unfold, but the development of an airstrip and port facility on Fiery Cross Reef would yield significant operational benefits for Chineseforces in the South China Sea and complicate matters for Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia in their disputes with China over ownership of the Spratly Islands.

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Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

More Nukes Doesn’t Always Mean Better Deterrence

In a short article recently published by The National Interest, Xunchao Zhang argues that blockade is an effective means for the U.S. Navy to conduct a war against China because of its reliance on oil imports and then proposes that China has two options for countering a blockade strategy: vulnerability-reducing and conflict-avoiding. He dismisses the first because the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not have the capacity to escort oil tanker convoys half-way round the world and China’s overland pipelines would be vulnerable to US strikes. Zhang therefore argues that a policy of avoiding conflict with the United States entirely is the only means for China to counteract a US blockade strategy. Key to this, he claims, is strengthening the Chinese nuclear deterrent and renouncing the No-First-Use policy. Only then will the Chinese nuclear deterrent be sufficient to prevent conflict with the United States and avoid a blockade which would likely be crippling. But this argument misses a fundamental point about deterrence and any US use of blockade in a war with China.

Jugular of the economy

Deterrence is about avoiding war. Zhang argues that by strengthening the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the likelihood of war with the United States would decrease, thereby countering the threat of an American blockade. However, the United States is already unlikely to initiate a war, for numerous reasons. What Zhang calls China’s “minimal nuclear deterrent”, the possible world economic consequences, lack of domestic support for such an endeavor, and the historical unwillingness of the United States to be seen as the aggressor all combine to deter the US from attacking China. Any U.S.-China war would be initiated by China, and therefore a strengthening in the Chinese nuclear arsenal, to include abandoning No-First-Use, does not make a compelling case that the likelihood of war with the United States would be decreased. At best it would have no effect, and at worst it would put the Chinese leadership in a position where a stronger nuclear deterrent could simply increase the attractiveness of conducting a conventional war beneath the nuclear umbrella.

 Furthermore, if a conflict-avoiding policy fails, an expanded nuclear arsenal would be useless in stopping the United States from imposing a blockade. Nuclear deterrence operates even in the context of war. It is unlikely that China would turn their nuclear weapons against the United States when under even a crippling blockade because the United States could respond overwhelmingly. A severe economic decline would be difficult to face, but nuclear weapons raining down on Beijing and Shanghai are on an entirely different plane. The incentive to not escalate to the point of nuclear warfare would be significant, and both sides understand this. The United States would have free reign to conduct the blockade without concern of nuclear escalation because of mutual deterrence.

Recent events support this view. In the context of the Ukraine Crisis, the United States has leveraged sanctions against Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, without fear of escalation. Another one or 10,000 Russian nuclear weapons would not change the fact that economic disruption is very different from physical destruction. If the possible effects of a blockade are as serious as Zhang argues, a strengthened nuclear deterrent is not the way to counter it.

Zhang is correct, however, to argue that China’s best way to counteract a potential blockade by the U.S. Navy is to avoid war entirely. Oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan are highly vulnerable. Hitting fixed targets with precision weapons is a skill the United States military has very nearly perfected, with strikes this summer in Syria from carrier-based aircraft and Tomahawk-toting surface ships again proving the point. He also correctly assesses the PLA Navy as insufficient to protect its maritime trade routes. It has no experience conducting convoy operations and has limited, if slowly improving, antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Despite the effort expended to deploy a task force off Somalia, China does not have the capacity to support the number and array of forces necessary to defend its trade routes.

Not your grandpa’s U-Boot

Furthermore, the geography of East Asia contains numerous maritime chokepoints, U.S. submarines are fast, quiet, and have incredible endurance, the U.S. surface fleet has decades of experience conducting maritime interdiction in some of the same waters it would blockade, and the United States has the ability to intercept maritime traffic far outside the range of PLAN capabilities, interdicting oil tankers at their source in the Persian Gulf. While Air-Sea battle in the face of A2/AD capabilities requires the development of any number of new weapons systems, the U.S. Navy has the capacity now and for the foreseeable future to cripple the Chinese economy in the event of war, at ranges far outside those of any existing or upcoming A2/AD capabilities. There is no simple panacea for China to overcome the threat of blockade in the event of war, but Zhang does get it right when he says that China’s best option is to avoid conflict entirely.

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Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

The Father of the Modern Chinese Navy—Liu Huaqing

This is the final piece in our Forgotten Naval Strategists series.

liu2Liu Huaqing is arguably one of China’s most famous naval officers. Often referred to as the “father of the modern Chinese Navy” and “China’s Mahan,” Liu served as commander of China’s Navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) from 1982 to 1987, a period which saw a sea change in China’s naval strategy as it moved away from coastal operations. However, Liu’s legacy is much more complex, given that he was actually more of a ground forces officer assigned to the navy, rather than a life-long naval officer. Rather than being the likely originator of China’s post 1980s naval strategy, he should be better remembered as one of China’s most ardent supporters of a stronger Chinese naval power.

Background

According to Liu’s autobiography, he was born on 20 October 1916, in eastern Hubei Province, China. He was one of six children, having three brothers and two sisters. Liu joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1929, at the young age of 13. However, three years later he was kicked out of the CCP after being accused of being a “counterrevolutionary.” Liu was only allowed to rejoin the Party in 1935, during his participation in the Long March (1934-36).[1] Despite this early set back, Liu reached the highest ranks of the CCP, serving as a member of China’s elite ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, from 1992 to 1997. He died on 16 January 2011, at the age of 94.

In addition to rising through the ranks of the CCP, Liu was a successful military officer. He joined the communist military forces (not yet called the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) in 1930, at the age of 14.[2] He subsequently fought against both the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese military during World War II. Towards the end of his military career, in 1988, he was promoted to the rank of general, and ultimately served as vice chairman of the CCP’s supreme military body, the Central Military Commission (CMC), from 1992 to 1997.

Naval career

Despite his other accomplishments, Liu is best known as modern China’s most famous naval officer. However, despite ultimately becoming PLA Navy commander, Liu was not a typical naval officer. Instead, he’s probably better described as a PLA ground forces officer with naval characteristics, to borrow from a Chinese saying. The majority of Liu’s military career was actually in the army, the (still) dominant service of the PLA—that he is more accurately referred to as “general” rather than “admiral” bears further testament to this fact. Furthermore, Liu’s first encounter with the PLA Navy wasn’t until he was 36 years old (1952), when he was appointed deputy political commissar of the Dalian Naval Academy.[3]

Once part of the PLA Navy, however, Liu enjoyed a rapid rise through its ranks. In 1958, after completing almost four years of study at the Soviet Union’s Voroshilov Naval Academy (today’s N.G. Kuznetsov Naval Academy), Liu became deputy commander, and subsequently commander, of China’s Lushun Naval Base, near the port city of Dalian.[4] In August 1960, he became deputy commander of the newly established North Sea Fleet in Qingdao.[5] A year later, he was appointed director of China’s Seventh Research Academy (Warship Research Academy), a newly founded institute that focused on “research and development of ships, weapon systems, equipment, and assimilation of imported technologies.”[6]

Liu’s appointment to the Seventh Research Academy was an inflection point, and for the next almost two decades, Liu was heavily involved in the research and development of China’s defense industries, particularly its ship building industry. In August 1966, he became deputy director of the National Defense Science and Technology Committee, which he held until 1969.[7] Liu then returned to the PLA Navy to direct its shipbuilding industry, and in 1970 he became the deputy chief of staff of the navy, responsible for naval weapons and platform development. Finally, in 1982, Liu was appointed commander of the PLA Navy, a position he held until 1987.

China’s “Offshore Defense” naval strategy

One of Liu’s key accomplishments during his tenure as commander was to oversee a major shift in the PLA Navy’s strategy in the mid 1980s. Until this point, the PLA Navy followed what it called the “Coastal Defense” (jin’an fangyu) strategy, which reflected Beijing’s belief that the primary role of the PLA Navy was to support the ground forces to defend against a Soviet land invasion. According to the PLA’s official encyclopedia, China’s “Coastal Defense” strategy was premised upon three parallel tracks. First, conducting maritime guerrilla operations using small naval and naval aviation formations to attack and harass dispersed and isolated enemy forces. Second, conducting rapid naval sorties to attack the enemy’s sea lanes and coastal targets within China’s immediate periphery. Third, carrying out small coastal naval operations under cover of ground artillery and land-based aircraft.

In 1986, the PLA Navy formally shifted its strategy from “Coastal Defense” to “Offshore Defense” (jinhai fangyu).[8] Unlike its predecessor, this strategy called on the PLA Navy to conduct independent naval actions further out from China’s coasts, although not yet true blue water operations. According to Liu’s autobiography, the focus of the “Offshore Defense” strategy was to defend China’s maritime interests within China’s claimed maritime territories. Liu fully recognized that the PLA Navy was unable to meet the requirements of this strategy when first articulated. In order to rectify this, the PLA Navy needed to develop four capabilities:

  • The ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time
  • The ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes
  • The ability to fight outside of China’s claimed maritime areas
  • The ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent.[9]

Reflecting these requirements, the “Offshore Defense” strategy has both a temporal and geographic component to it. As Bernard D. Cole notes, the PLA Navy’s capability to fulfill the requirements of the “Offshore Defense” strategy were to develop along three phases:

  • Phase 1: to be achieved by 2000, during which time the PLA Navy needed to be able to exert control over the maritime territory within the First Island China, namely the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea (see map)—a goal that Cole argues China has yet to fully achieve.
  • Phase 2: to be achieved by 2020, when the navy’s control was to extend out to the Second Island Chain.
  • Phase 3: to be achieved by 2050, by which time the PLA Navy was to evolve into a true global navy.[10]

chain

The shift in the PLA’s naval strategy reflected an earlier adjustment in Beijing’s assessment of its international situation. In the late spring of 1985, China, then under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, reassessed its strategic outlook. According to this assessment, China was no longer under the imminent threat of war, envisioned as a major ground invasion by Soviet forces to the north. Instead, due to a relative parity between the Soviet Union and the United States, China could enjoy a relatively peaceful environment for the foreseeable future.[11] This allowed Beijing to take the PLA off a constant pre-war posture and focus more on modernizing and downsizing the military in light of the new requirements to be able to fight a smaller, more technical type of war (referred to as “local war” (jubu zhanzheng) in PLA parlance).

The PLA Navy’s increased focus on China’s maritime domain also followed Beijing’s gradual recognition of the importance of the sea starting in the 1970s. As this author has written elsewhere, in the 1970s, China “began to recognize the potential economic value of controlling the maritime areas”—a region it had more or less ignored until then.[12] In particular, Beijing eyed the potential for hydrocarbons and minerals in the seabed, which, if exploited, could be used to benefit China’s economic development. The growing importance of fisheries to China’s economy was also noted. As was the new-found importance of China’s sea lanes, upon which China’s fledgling export economy increasingly depended.

Despite being credited with developing the PLA Navy’s “Offshore Defense” strategy, it is unlikely that Liu was the actual originator of the strategy. His career path and previous military experiences are not commensurate with those of a typical naval strategist. However, that is not to say that Liu didn’t play an influential role in the strategy’s formation. On the contrary, his position as naval commander during this period provided him with the necessary influence to see the strategy adopted in the first place. Furthermore, as CMC vice chairman, Liu would have been in a position to ensure that the PLA Navy developed the capabilities it needed to carry out the “Offshore Defense” strategy. That Liu was allegedly personal friends with Deng Xiaoping probably also helped strengthen Liu’s policy influence.[13] In this way, rather than “China’s Mahan,” it might be more accurate to refer to Liu as “China’s Theodore Roosevelt,” at least as far as naval development is concerned.

Conclusion

So what can we derive from this quick review of Liu Huaqing’s influence on the PLA Navy? This article makes four points:

  • First, the importance of having the naval capability to defend a state’s maritime interests. As China’s maritime interests expanded, Liu (and his fellow naval travelers) recognized the need for a naval force capable of safeguarding those interests. This may appear to be a truism, but it is worth repeating.
  • Second, the importance of syncing naval strategy (and subsequent development and procurement requirements) with overall national objectives. The PLA Navy’s switch to the “Offshore Defense” strategy ensured that the naval component of the PLA would align closely with the PLA’s newly established requirements for war fighting. Failure to ensure that the naval and other military services coordinate their respective strategies will only reduce efficiency and waste resources.
  • Third, the importance of developing naval capabilities based upon a strategy, and not vice versa. When the PLA Navy under Liu adopted the “Offshore Defense” strategy, it was fully understood that the navy was incapable of carrying out the new strategy—something China subsequently set about to change. At the end of the day, strategy is still the combination of ends, ways, and means—with ends holding pride of place.
  • Fourth, the importance of an influential lobbying force on behalf of a strong naval capability. The improved capabilities of the PLA Navy over the past two decades are arguably in part the direct result of Liu’s strong influence—especially in the 1990s when he was CMC vice chairman. Without his direct support for China’s naval development, it is unlikely that the PLA Navy would be where it is today.

Daniel Hartnett is a research scientist with The CNA Corporation, where he researches China’s military and security affairs. The views expressed here are his own. He can be followed at @dmhartnett.

[1] Liu Huaqing, Liu Huaqing Huiyilu [Memoirs of Liu Huaqing], (Beijing: PLA Publishing House, 2004), pp. 1-6.

[2] Liu, p. 7.

[3] Liu, p. 253.

[4] Liu, pp. 265-274.

[5] Liu, p. 282.

[6] Sandeep Dewan, China’s Maritime Ambitions and the PLA Navy (New Delhi, India: Vij Books, 2013), p. 18.

[7] Liu, p. 307.

[8] Some Westerners have translated this term as “near seas defense.” This article sticks with conventional usage, however.

[9] Liu, p. 438.

[10] Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd edition, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), p. 176.

[11] Yao Yunzhu, “The Evolution of Military Doctrine of the Chinese PLA from 1985 to 1995,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 7:2 (1995): 57-62.

[12] Daniel M. Hartnett, “China’s Evolving Interests and Activities in the East China Sea,” in Michael A. McDevitt et al., The Long Littoral Project: East China and Yellow Seas—A Maritime Perspective on Indo-Pacific Security (Alexandria, VA: CNA, September 2012), pp. 83-86, http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/IOP-2012-U-002207-Final.pdf.

[13] Edward Wong, “Liu Huaqing Dies at 94; Oversaw Modernization of China’s Navy,” New York Times, 16 January 2011.

Europe’s Role in an East Asian War

Major war in East Asia is a very unpleasant, but not unthinkable scenario. Of course, the US would be involved from day one in any military conflict in the East or South China Seas. However, Europe’s role would be less clear, due to its increasing strategic irrelevance. Most probably, except the UK, Europeans would deliver words only.

Europe’s reactions depend on America

While Asia’s naval arms race continue, tensions are rising further in the East and South China Seas. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any side will lunch a blitz-strike and, thereby, start a regional war. Although China is increasing its major combat capabilities, it is instead already using a salami-slicing tactic to secure its large claims. However, the worst of all threats are unintended incidents, caused for example by young nervous fighter pilots, leading to a circle of escalations without an exit in sight.

Claims in the South China Sea (The Economist)

Hence, let us discuss the very unpleasant scenario that either there would be a major war between China and Japan or between China and South China Sea neighboring countries, such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Of course, the US would be involved in the conflict from day one. But what about Europe? The Old Continent would surely be affected, especially by the dramatic global economic impact an East Asian War would have. However, reactions of European countries would largely depend on what the US is doing: the larger the US engagement, the louder Washington’s calls for a coalition of the willing and capable will count.

The UK would (maybe) go

The Royal Navy undertakes annual “Cougar Deployments” to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the UK still has expeditionary capabilities to join US-led operations in East of Malacca. Disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan by the destroyer HMS Daring and the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious proved that British capability. While Daring is a sophisticated warship, the 34 year old Illustrious with her few helicopters and without fixed-wing aircraft would not be of much operational worth.

Royal Navy SSN in the Suez Canal in 2001 (The Hindu)

Moreover, since 2001, the Royal Navy always operates one SSN with Tomahawk cruise-missiles in the Indian Ocean, probably the most sophisticated high-intensity warfare platfrom the Royal Navy would have to offer for an East Asia deployment. The UK still has access to ports in Singapore and Brunei, although there is no guarantee that these countries, when not involved in the conflict, would open their ports for British ships underway to war. Australia, which is likely to join forces with the US, would be an other option for replenishment at the port of Darwin.

Polar Route (Wikipedia)

Through the Polar Route (a route European airlines used while Soviet airspace was closed) and with aerial refueling or stops in Canada and Alaska, Britain could also deploy some of its Eurofighters to Japan. As such, Britain would be capable of doing, at least, something.

 The question is,if Britain is willing to take action. Surely, UKIP’s Nigel Farage would not hesitate to use the broad public reluctance to expeditionary endeavors for his’ own cause. As in case of Syria, a lack of public support at home could prevent the UK from a military involvement. It would be hard for any UK Government to sell to the British voter to cut back public spending at home while signing checks for the Royal Navy heading towards East Asian waters.

France would not make a difference

Beside the US, France is the world’s only navy with a permanent presence through bases in all three oceans. Although, with one frigate, France’s Pacific presence of surface warships is relatively small. The one Tahiti-based French frigate deployed to an East Asian theater would not make a difference, but be a rather small show of force.

French frigate in Bora-Bora 2002 (Wikipedia)

Like Britain, France permanently operates warships in the Indian Ocean, which it could also deploy to East Asia. Its nuclear-powered carrier Charles de Gaulle and SSN would also be able to tour beyond Singapore, however with a relatively long reaction time.

Paris’ main hurdle would be the same as London’s: The lack of public support. Le Pen would do exactly the same as UKIP and mobilize publicly against a French engagement and, thereby, against the government. Moreover, France has not the money necessary for any substantial and high-intensity engagement. In addition, a weak president like Hollande would fear the political risks. Given the operation ends in a disaster for the French, e.g. with the Charles de Gaulle sunk by the Chinese, Mr. Hollande would probably have to resign. Hence, do not expect an active role of France during an East Asian conflict.

No role for NATO and EU 

On paper, NATO, with its Standing Maritime Groups, seems to be capable of deploying relevant naval forces across the globe. In practice, however, any mission with a NATO logo needs approval of 28 member states. Due to NATO’s present pivot to Russia, many members would object any new NATO involvement outside the Euro-Atlantic Area. As the US prefers coalitions of the willing and capable anyway, there would be no role for NATO in an East Asian war.

In addition, there is also no role for the EU. Since 2011, the rejections each year to the EU for observing the East Asia Summit are showing Brussels’ enduring strategic irrelevance in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, neutral EU members, like Sweden and Austria, would never allow any active involvement. It is even questionable, if EU members could agree on a common political position or sanctions – something they have already failed to do often enough.

Dependent on the size and kind of US response, smaller European countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway may join forces with the US Navy and send single vessels through the Panama Canal into the Pacific or replace US warships on other theaters. This is not far from reality, because these countries did already sent warships into the Pacific for the RIMPAC exercise. However, their only motivation would be to use these deployments to make their voices better heard in Washington.

What would Germany do?

First of all, Germany is the enduring guarantee that, when confronted with major war in East Asia, NATO and EU will do nothing else than sending out press releases about their “deep concern”. Being happy that ISAF’s end terminates the era of large expeditionary deployments, Germany’s political class would never approve an active military role in East Asia – left aside that Germany would not be able to contribute much, anyway.

Sino-German Summit 2012 (Source)

Germany would first and foremost defend its trade relationships with China, which is in its national interests. Thus, the much more interesting question is, if the German government would develop the a diplomatic solution. Germany has very good relationships with the US, China, Japan and South Korea. Vietnam and other South East Asian countries have frequently expressed greater interest in deeper cooperation with Germany.

Hence, Germany has the political weight necessary to work for a diplomatic solution. The question is whether German politicians would be willing to work for that solution themselves. Most probably, Berlin’s press releases would call for the United Nations and the “International Community” (whoever that would be in such a scenario) to take action.

What Germany could do and what would get approval at home, is to implement measures of ending hostilities and re-establishing peace – maybe by an UN-mandated maritime monitoring mission or by the build-up of a new trust-creating security architecture.

Europe’s limits

The debate about a European role in an East Asian major war is largely hypothetical. Nevertheless, it teaches us three relevant lessons.

First, we see how politically and militarily limited Europe already has become in the early stages of the 21st century. Given current trends continue, imagine how deep Europe’s abilities will have been sunk in twenty years.

Second, the main reasons for Europe’s limits are the lack of political will, public support and money. Europe’s march to irrelevance is not irreversible. However, it would need the political will for change and an economic recovery making new financial resources available

Third, we are witnessing an increasing European geopolitical and strategic irrelevance beyond its wider neighborhood. In reality, Europe’s role in an East Asian war would be nothing else but words.

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

The Tiger’s Reach: China’s Blue Water Ambitions

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) will deploy ballistic missile submarines on deterrence patrols in the Pacific Ocean later this year, placing them within striking distance of Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States. This report isn’t too alarming – U.S. Navy ballistic subs regularly deploy on deterrence patrols, and during the Cold War Soviet boomers regularly parked off America’s coasts with little fanfare. The significance of these deployments have less to do with China’s second-strike capability than with extending its reach beyond their regional coastline and moving towards a true blue-water navy.

Sailors of the world, unite.
Sailors of the world, unite.

The PLAN’s operations have typically focused their own neighborhood. China’s naval force, until recently, comprised of craft better suited to Anti-Access/Area Defense (A2/AD) in the surrounding seas and their claimed territory. Quiet diesel submarines, along with hundreds of missile boats and patrol craft, make up a bulk of the Chinese fleet. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the DF-21D anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) round out China’s robust A2/AD doctrine. Focusing on such a strategy has its advantages – China certainly has an edge over some form of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia that might threaten China’s interests, including in Taiwan.

While China’s salami-slicing and regional territorial disputes with its neighbors are rightfully garnering attention in the region and throughout the world, they aren’t the only moves up its sleeve. Since the mid-1990s, China has tested its ability to conduct blue water operations, gaining the experience and training they sorely lack. Beginning with multinational exercises with European navies,  the PLAN moved on to Chinese destroyer deployments in the Gulf of Aden in support of anti-Piracy missions there. Protecting Chinese shipping interests in the Middle East is just the beginning of PLAN blue water deployments.

PLAN ships have already deployed within Southeast Asia, including an exercise this month in the vicinity of the Malacca Strait, apparently searching for alternatives to the strait in the event of regional crises which threaten strategic interests. With East African piracy winding down and West African piracy ramping up, Chinese intervention in West Africa is just down the road. Nigeria produces 5-6% of the world’s oil, and China is keen on protecting their economic and shipping interests in West Africa, just as they were in the Gulf of Aden. This doesn’t mean another international coalition to battle piracy; rather, international cooperation and aid to West African nations. While the U.S. has been slow out of the gate on this front, China is already delivering naval patrol vessels to the Nigerian navy. It appears China is more eager to gain influence and protect interests in the region than the U.S., meaning maritime patrols and port visits to the area are not out of the question, especially if China longs for an influential and worldwide deployable naval force.

West Africa, the Pacific deep, and the Straits of Malacca are not the end for PLAN deployments. Chinese forces may soon make an appearance in the Arabian or Red Sea to project power and match wits with the U.S. Navy. While deployment experience and combat training are far behind the U.S., these moves are a step towards gaining legitimacy and experience in worldwide operations. U.S. Naval intelligence projects a Chinese blue water navy by 2020; they are well on their way.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

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

The “Mighty Moo” Maneuvers Around Trouble

The Mighty Moo, USS Cowpens, maneuvering with the deftness of its heifer namesake.
The Mighty Moo, USS Cowpens (GG-63), maneuvering with the deftness of its heifer namesake.

The recent near-collision of a PLA Navy tank landing ship and the missile-guided cruiser USS Cowpens in the South China Sea represents yet another incident in a long line of instances of Chinese gamesmanship with the US Navy extending back to the March 2009 harassment of the USNS Impeccable and the 2001 downing of an EP-3. In each of these cases, the Chinese took issue with the United State conducting surveillance of Chinese military targets at sea or on the Chinese mainland (in this case, the Cowpens was conducting surveillance of the PLAN aircraft carrier Liaoning, which was for the first time conducting exercises in the South China Sea).

All three occurred in the South China Sea, although it is not currently clear from media reports where exactly the most recent confrontation took place. This could prove to be an important distinction. Previously, Beijing justified its escalatory responses to US actions by saying that they interpreted U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to mean that military activities within the Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ) were prohibited without the consent of China. The EP-3 and Impeccable incidents both occurred near Hainan Island, inside the Chinese EEZ. If this most recent escalatory move occurred outside the EEZ, it will be particularly interesting to see how China justifies itself. Are they expanding their legal interpretation further by claiming that all military activities conducted in waters within the so-called “nine-dash line” must receive Chinese approval? This of course is conjecture—especially given that as of this writing it also appears from a cursory glance of Chinese-language news websites that neither the PLA nor the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet made a statement. At that point this issue will require the analysis of individuals better trained in the vagaries of Chinese territorial legal disputes than I.

Also pertinent to this debate is the recent admission at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (by a Chinese military officer no less!) that the PLAN was itself already conducting surveillance of U.S. military installations on Guam and Hawaii within U.S. EEZs around those islands. As Rory Medcalf points out, this clearly contradicts the Chinese legal position on the matter. At what point will this hypocrisy actually catch up with the PLA and necessitate a change in China’s legal position?

Last week at an event at the Wilson Center, Oriana Skylar Mastro suggested that China’s recent announcement of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) fits into a pattern of Chinese “coercive diplomacy,” in which China manipulates risk and intentionally raises the risk of an accident, a view echoed by other analysts in an approach known as salami tactics. In this way, China stops just short of further escalation, and achieves its objectives of slowly chipping away at opposing territorial positions and international legal norms. This analysis is clearly simpatico with her earlier published work regarding the Impeccable incident and the most recent confrontation involving the USS Cowpens. In her paper, Dr. Mastro identified a coordinated Chinese media campaign and legal challenge that accompanied the PLA’s military provocation. She also recommended that in order to prevent further Chinese attempts at escalation, the United States should publicize these events, directly challenge the Chinese legal position, and maintain a strong presence in the area, all things which the United States is now doing (specifically in the Cowpens case, the Department of Defense broke the story).

These are sound responses to Chinese attempts to delegitimize lawful operations in international waters. What should the United States not do? In an article published by the Washington Free Beacon, Bill Gertz quotes a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Rick Fisher, who suggests that China in this incident is intentionally “looking for a fight” that will “cow the Americans,” and that the United States and Japan should heavily fortify the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in response. Aside from the fact that China certainly is not “looking for a fight,” fortifying the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would be a terrible idea. The U.S. government does not even take an official position on the islands’ sovereignty! The U.S. response should certainly be firm in insisting that surveillance within foreign EEZs is completely legitimate and lawful; but turning this issue into about something other than surveillance in international waters would be blowing it out of all proportion. The United States should, in contrast to the ways in which China’s behavior is perceived, proceed carefully but resolutely and stick to its guns.

William Yale is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He has lived in China for two years, and worked at the Naval War College and the U.S. State Department. He tweets @wayale and blogs at williamyale.com.