Tag Archives: South China Sea

India and the South China Sea

This article originally was originally featured by the Centre on Asia and Globalisation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Byron Chong

The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.

The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.

Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.

The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.

Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.

Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’

Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.

Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, China was reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.

Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.

What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.

Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

How Australia’s Maritime Strategy and Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Upset China

By David Scott

Introduction

On 4 September 2017, an Australian naval task group departed from Sydney  and embarked on a unique deployment called Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 to participate in a series of key naval exercises with a variety of partners in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific – i.e. the Indo-Pacific. Its commander, Jonathan Earley, oversaw six ships and over 1300 personnel, making it the largest coordinated task group from Australia to deploy to the region since the early 1980s.

The immediate purposes of the exercise were given by the Australian Department of Defence as two-fold; namely soft security “focused on demonstrating the ADF’s Humanitarian and Disaster Relief regional response capability, as well as hard security “further supporting security and stability in Australia’s near region.” The latter was described as demonstrating “high-end military capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare.” Geopolitically this reflected what the Defence Minister Marise Payne called “heightened interests in the Indo-Pacific” for Australia, with frequently recurring China-related considerations.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment. However, the Chinese state media was certain on Australian motives, running articles like “Australia-led military drills show tougher China stance” (Global Times, 7 September). In the article, Liu Caiyu argued that “Australia’s largest military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region show it has toughened its stance toward China, especially on South China Sea issues.” The People’s Daily wondered, pointedly, given this deployment into the South China Sea and East China Sea, “What does Australia want to do with the largest military exercise encircling China in 30 years?

It was revealing that Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 was explained by the Australian Department of Defence as enhancing military cooperation with some of Australia’s “key regional partners”; specifically named as Brunei, Cambodia, the Federated States of Micronesia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. Politically the absence of China as a partner was deliberate but accurate, and in which the range of other countries represented a degree of tacit external balancing on the part of Australia.

The Itinerary

The naval group was led by HMAS Adelaide, Australia’s largest flagship, commissioned in December 2015. HMAS Adelaide was joined at various moments by HMAS Darwin (guided missile frigate), HMAS Melbourne (guided missile frigate), HMAS Parramatta (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), HMAS Toowoomba (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), and HMAS Sirius (replenishment ship). These units highlighted Australia’s unique Indo-Pacific positioning given it faces both oceans, as units from Fleet Base East at Sydney (HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Melbourne, and HMAS Parramatta) and from Fleet Base West at Perth (HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Sirius) participated.

The task force’s first engagement activity announced on 8 September was for HMAS Adelaide to conduct aviation training with USS Bonhomme Richard, a large American amphibious assault ship, on the east coast of Australia. HMAS Adelaide then completed further amphibious landing craft and aviation training with the Republic of Singapore’s amphibious ship, RSS Resolution while deployed further up the east coast of Australia off the coast of Townsville.

The first external port call was carried out on 20 September as HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, and HMAS Toowoomba steamed into Dili, the capital of East Timor, to deliver a portable hospital ahead of Exercise Hari’i Hamutuk. This engineering exercise involves Australian, Japan, U.S., and East Timor’s military forces working side-by-side to build skills and support East Timor’s development. This set the seal nicely on their reconciliation over claims in the Timor Sea, achieved when the two sides reached agreement at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

HMAS Parramatta proceeded northward to conduct joint patrols from 22-26 September with the Philippine Navy in the Sulu Sea, as part of the annual Lumbas exercises running since 2007. HMAS Parramatta sailed eastwards to Palau for a three-day stop from 22-24 September. Significantly Palau recognizes Taiwan (ROC) rather than Beijing (PRC) as the legitimate government of mainland China. A further extension saw HMAS Parramatta visit Yap on 27 September. Its stay at Yap included cross-deck training with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) Patrol Boat FSS Independence, an Australian-gifted Pacific-class Patrol Boat. Both stops showed Australian naval outreach into the so-called “second island chain” (dier daolian) which Chinese naval strategy has long shown interest in penetrating, as with deployments of underwater survey vessels around the Caroline Islands in August 2017.

Philippine Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Allan Ferdinand Cusi and his staff with their host, Commander Joint Task Group 661.1, Captain Jonathan Earley RAN on the flight deck of HMAS Adelaide as it sails into Manila Bay for a visit to the Philippines during Indo Pacific Endeavour 2017. (Australian Ministry of Defense photo by LSIS Peter Thompson)

Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Toowoomba paid a port call to Jakarta from 24-26 September. It was significant that this brought to an end a previous period of coolness between the two governments, at a time when Indonesia was becoming more assertive in its own claims over maritime waters in the South China Sea, renaming waters around the Natuna archipelago (which also fall within China’s 9-dash line) as the North Natuna Sea.

HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Parramatta then rendezvoused at the Malaysian port of Port Klang from 1-5 October to carry out joint Humanitarian and Disaster Relief exercises and demonstrations on 4 October. Relations with Malaysia have remained strong, anchored through the Australian presence at Butterworth Airbase under the Five Power Defence Agreement (5PDFA) and the bilateral 25-year old joint defense program between Australia and Malaysia.

 Australian naval units then retraced their steps and entered the South China Sea. These waters are mostly claimed by China within its 9-dash line, which includes the Spratly Islands (disputed in varying degrees with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Vietnam) and with Beijing in control of the Paracels (disputed with Vietnam) since 1974. China viewed the arrival of the Australian Navy in the South China Sea with some unease, with the state media warning that the “Australian fleet must be wary of meddling in South China sea affairs” (Global Times, 24 September).

Having paid then a friendly port call to the small, oil-rich state of Brunei from 30 September to 2 October, HMAS Melbourne then moved up with HMAS Parramatta to Japan, where they arrived on 9 October to take part in the bilateral Nichi Gou Trident exercise with the Japanese Navy off the coast of Tokyo. The ships practiced anti-submarine warfare, ship handling, aviation operations, and surface gunnery. This exercise has been alternatively hosted between Australia and Japan since 2009. Security links with Japan have been considerably strengthened during the last decade since the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed in March 2007.

Simultaneously, further deployment into the Indian Ocean was carried out by HMAS Toowoomba which carried out a four-day goodwill visit to Port Blair from 12-15 October. Port Blair is the key archipelago possession of India dominating the Straits of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal, and the site for India’s front-line Andaman and Nicobar Command. Various joint exercises were carried out between the Indian Navy and Australian Navy. This reinforced the strengthening naval links between Australia and India, flagged up in the Framework for Security Cooperation signed in November 2014, and subsequently demonstrated with their bilateral AUSINDEX exercises in June 2017 off the western coast of Australia and in September 2015 in the Bay of Bengal.

Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin proceeded to the Philippines for a further goodwill visit from 10-15 October. Maritime links have been further strengthened of late with the donation of two Balikpapan-class heavy landing crafts by Canberra in 2015, and nominal-rate sale of three more in 2016. Australia’s concerns had been on show in Defense Secretary Marise Payne’s discussions in Manila on 11 September. These have been partly to bolster the Philippines against ISIS infiltration into the Muslim-inhabited southern province of Mindanao, but also to bolster the Philippines’ maritime capacity in the South China Seas against a rising China. With regard to the South China Sea, Australia has called for China to comply with the findings of the UNCLOS tribunal in July 2016, in the case brought by the Philippines, which rejected Chinese claims in the South China Seas.

HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin then re-crossed the South China Sea to pay a port call at Singapore on 23 October. This maintains the regular appearance of Australian military forces at Singapore, which have been an ongoing feature of the 5 Power Defence Forces Agreement (5PDFA). While HMAS Darwin returned to Darwin, HMAS Adelaide paid a friendly port call at Papua New Guinea’s main port of Port Moresby on 11 November. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, a former colony, and (like East Timor) the subject of Chinese economic blandishments.

HMAS Melbourne and Parramatta and a P-8A submarine hunter aircraft moved across from Japan to the Korean peninsula for an extended stay from 27 October – 6 November. This included their participation in the biannual Exercise Haedoli Wallaby, initiated in 2012, which focuses on anti-submarine drills with the South Korean Navy. This also reflected a reiteration of Australian readiness to deploy forces into Northeast Asia amid heightened tensions surrounding North Korean nuclear missile advancements. Naval logic given by the Task Group commander, Jonathan Earley was that “as two regional middle powers that share common democratic values as well as security interests, Haedoli Wallaby is an important activity for Australia and the ROK.” Wider trilateral activities were shown with the Melbourne and the Parramatta then carrying out anti-missile drills with U.S. and South Korean destroyers in the East China Sea on 6-7 November.

Australia’s Strategic Proclamations as Context

The general context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was the explicit focus on the “Indo-Pacific” as Australia’s strategic frame of reference stressed in the Defence White Papers of 2013 and 2016, and rising concerns about China’s growing maritime presence.

This strategic context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was elaborated at length by the Defence Minister Marise Payne at the Seapower Conference in Sydney on 3 October. Payne’s speech contained strong messaging on Australian assets, deployment, and the Indo-Pacific focus of Australian defense strategy.

With regard to assets, Payne announced and welcomed “the most ambitious upgrade of our naval fleet in Australia since the Second World War” to create “a regional superior future naval force being built in Australia which will include submarines, frigates, and a fleet of offshore patrol vessels.” She also noted her own pleasure in commissioning Australia’s “largest warship” (HMAS Adelaide, commissioned on 4 December 2015) and “most powerful” air warfare destroyer (HMAS Hobart, commissioned on 23 September 2017). Australia’s second air warfare destroyer, Brisbane, began sea trials off the coast of southern Australia in late November 2017. This current naval buildup could be seen as demonstrating external balancing, but of course this raises the question of external balancing against whom – to which the unstated answer is China.

With regard to deployments, Payne enthused on decisive opportunities for a fifth generation navy:

“Altogether these and those future capabilities will transform the Australian fleet into a fully operational, fifth generation navy. The RAN will be able to deploy task groups equipped with a wide range of capabilities, from high-end war fighting to responsive and agile humanitarian assistance … To envisage that future, high-end war fighting to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we also only need to look at the ADF’s Joint Task Group Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 that’s currently underway in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Finally, the whole Indo-Pacific nature of Australian maritime strategy was stressed:

“From the Malacca, the Sunda and Lombok Straits to the South and East China Seas, many of the most vital areas of globalisation and sources of geopolitical challenge are in our backyard. If the twenty-first century will be the Asian Century, then it will also be the Maritime Century. Just as surely as the balance of global economic and military weight is shifting in the Indo-Pacific, so too is it focused on the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With established and emerging maritime powers across the region rapidly expanding their naval capabilities, the waters to Australia’s north are set to teem with naval platforms, the numbers and the strength of which has never been seen before […] In a crowded and contested Indo-Pacific maritime sphere, Australia must present a credible deterrent strategy, and to do our part in contributing to the peace, stability and security, and to good order at sea […] Our naval capabilities will therefore be integral […] to the preservation of the rules-based global order, and safeguarding peace in the maritime Indo-Pacific.”

China was not specifically mentioned but was the unstated reason for much of these Indo-Pacific challenges that Australia felt it had to respond to, with its behavior in the South China Sea frequently the subject of the strictures on maintaining a “rules based” order.

The South China Sea issue was on public view at the Australia-U.S.-Japan trilateral strategic dialogue (TSD) meeting on 7 August 2017 where Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joined her Japanese and U.S. counterparts in expressing “serious concerns” over “coercive” actions and reclamation projects being carried out and urged China to accept the ruling against it by the UNCLOS tribunal. Finally they announced their intentions to keep deploying in the South China Sea, into what they considered were international waters. In June 2017, Australia had already joined Japan, Canada, and the United States for two days of military exercises in the South China Sea.

As Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, Australia’s Chief of Naval Staff, noted in his speech on “Law of the Sea Convention in the Asia Pacific Region: Threats, challenges and opportunities,” despite “the increasingly aggressive actions taken by some nations to assert their claims over disputed maritime boundaries …[…] the Navy will continue to exercise our rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight.Australian commentators were quick to point out its significance. In effect China was in mind as a threat and challenge. Although Australia has not taken a formal position on rival claims on South China Sea waters, it had strongly criticized Chinese reclamation projects and military buildups in the South China Sea, hence Global Time articles like “South China Sea issue drags Sino-Australian ties into rough waters” (20 June 2017).

Australian naval chief of staff Vice Admiral Tim Barrett (L) and Chinese naval chief of staff Admiral Shen Jinlong shake hands during an engagement in December 2017. (photo via ABC.net.au)

Even as Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 units ploughed across the Western Pacific, Australia officials joined their U.S., Japan, and Indian counterparts on 12 November in a revived Quad format on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. Australian concerns, shared with its partners, were clearly expressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT): “upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation […] and upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.” The official Chinese response at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was minimal, “we hope that such relations would not target a third party” (14 November), followed by sharper comments in the state media on Australian participation being unwise (Global Times, “Australia rejoining Quad will not advance regional prosperity, unity, 15 November). The so-called Quad had emerged in 2007 with meetings between officials on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, with Australia joining in the Malabar exercises held in the Bay of Bengal by India, Japan, and the U.S. Australia subsequently withdrew from that format, though continuing to strengthen bilateral and trilateral naval links with these other three partners. This renewed Quad setting is likely to see Australia rejoin the Malabar exercises being held in 2018.

It was no surprise that this Indo-Pacific setting was reinforced with the Foreign Policy White Paper released on 23 November with its listing of “Indo-Pacific partnerships” in which “the Indo–Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of Korea are of first order importance to Australia” as “major partners.” China’s absence from this listing of Indo-Pacific partners was revealing. Balancing considerations were tacitly acknowledged in the White Paper:

“To support a balance in the Indo–Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive, and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with  the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings. In addition to the United States, our relations with Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of [South] Korea are central to this agenda.”

China was again absent from this listing, which was no surprise given how the White Paper noted that “Australia is particularly concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.” In China this was immediately rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue. We are gravely concerned about this…” and also in the state media (Global Times, “China slams Australian White Paper remarks on South China Sea,” 23 November). This explains the extreme sensitivity China had shown over the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment into the South China Sea.

Conclusion

Consequently 2017 ended by palpable Australia-China maritime friction, when China’s Ministry of Defense gave details of discussions between China’s Navy commander Shen Jinlong and his Australian counterpart Vice Admiral Tim Barrett. The Chinese statement said that “in the last year, the Australian military’s series of actions in the South China Sea have run counter to the general trend of peace and stability. This does not accord with … forward steps in cooperation in all areas between the two countries.” In retrospect Australia’s maritime strategy shows itself to be primarily Indo-Pacific oriented, with its increasing concerns over China generating a response of external balancing through naval exercises and cooperation with India, Japan, the U.S., and a multitude of other partners, and with an increasing focus on restraining China in the South China Sea. China has been upset.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: HMAS Adelaide sails the Timor Sea to deliver a mobile hospital to Dili, Timor Leste, as part of a multi-national Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief exercise. (Australian Ministry of Defence photo by LSIS Peter Thompson)

The U. S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea: Strategy or Folly?

By Michael D. Armour, Ph.D.

Introduction

Recently there has been discussions at the highest level of the U.S. military concerning the deployment of U.S. Coast Guard assets to the South China sea and integrating them into the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) conducted by the U.S. Navy relating to the manmade atolls constructed by the Chinese and subsequently claimed as Chinese sovereign territory. It may be that these U.S. Coast Guard units, if deployed to the area, may turn out to be a combat multiplier or a diplomatic plus. However, given the meager USCG budget and the limited assets of the service, their deployment may prove to be insignificant or even fraught with danger.

Chinese Territorial Expansion Claims

The South China Sea (SCS) has become a flashpoint on the world stage. The People’s Republic of China has asserted territorial claims for many islands in the Spratly and Parcel groups that other nations, such as Viet Nam and the Philippines, claim as their own sovereign territory. In addition to these claims, the Chinese have occupied and militarized many of the manmade atolls which they have constructed in the same area. The photo below of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly chain illustrates the militarization of these artificial atoll platforms and the amount of military hardware that has been installed on many of them.1

Fiery Cross Reef (CSIS AMTI)

Jeremy Bender reports that U.S. officials estimate that the Chinese construction at Fiery Cross Reef could accommodate an airstrip long enough for most of Beijing’s military aircraft and that China is also expanding manmade islands on Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Gaven Reef around the Spratlys  He goes on to say that China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructures including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks on some of the manmade atolls. These would likely be used as launching points for aerial defense operations in support of Chinese naval vessels in the southern reaches of the SCS.2 Additionally, China considers the waters surrounding these islands to be sovereign territory requiring foreign vessel notification before approaching the 12-mile limit.

U.S. Opposition

An international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s behavior in the SCS, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis. The tribunal also stated that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment.3 In relation to this the U. S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) around these atolls. On October 27, 2015, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen transited within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of China’s artificially-built features in the SCS.4 On 10 May, 2016 the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.5 Also, in early 2016, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels without prior notification.6 According to Alex Lockie the Trump administration may be willing to continue these confrontational FONOPs which will surely heighten tensions in the area.7

Enter the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) is a critical tool in the effort to secure China’s maritime interests. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard has improved China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims. In relation

to this, a survey conducted by China Power showed that of the 50 major incidents identified in the SCS, from 2010 onward, at least one CCG (or other Chinese maritime law enforcement) vessel was involved in 76 percent of incidents. Four additional incidents involved a Chinese naval vessel acting in a maritime law enforcement capacity, raising that number to 84 percent.8 China now possesses the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet and that it uses its law-enforcement cutters as an instrument of foreign policy.9 In relation to this, analysts conclude that in the flashpoints in the South China Sea, the Chinese are deploying coast guard ships and armed fishing vessels instead of its regular navy assets.10

Crest of the China Coast Guard

Enter the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)?

In January of 2017, Robbin Laird conducted an interview with the Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Paul Zukunft. He quoted the Admiral as stating the following in regard to the Coast Guard’s possible role in the SCS:

“I have discussed with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) the concept that we would create a permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas. This would allow us to expand our working relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. We can spearhead work with allies on freedom of navigation exercises as well.”11

The proposal to deploy USCG assets to the SCS was also espoused by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, who offered ways in which the United States could try to deter further Chinese encroachments in the SCS. One of their scenarios included the U.S. countering aggressive Chinese tactics by establishing a regular and visible Coast Guard presence in the area. They went on to say that:

“Only the United States has a major global coast guard capability, but some regional and even some international partners might be able to assist. As China has demonstrated, Coast Guard vessels are less provocative than warships, and their employment by the United States and partners could confront similar Chinese ships with far less risk of military escalation.”12

Others disagree with the above assessment. Brian Chao notes that the use of coast guard or constabulary forces in the South China Sea might actually increase the risk of war instead of easing tensions. He notes that using these forces as a diplomatic tool could lull all participants into a false sense of calm; however, these constabulary forces may be more willing to take aggressive actions because they may believe that the law is on their side.13

In addition to this negative stance, Aaron Picozzi and Lincoln Davidson question whether or not the U.S. Coast Guard could handle a mission in the South China Sea. They point out the reality that the U.S. Coast Guard lacks the capacity to base a “visible” presence in the SCS and that due to budget restraints, it simply does not have the ship capacity to carry out effective, sustained patrols in that area of operations. They also claim that the placement of U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the SCS would create a void in the service’s main mission, namely law enforcement, or search and rescue operations in home waters.14

If USCG assets are deployed to the SCS, it is hoped that because of the USCG’s good relations with its Chinese counterpart, tensions could be lessened and that U.S. interests could be better served. At this point, however, one must ask the following questions: What would happen if hostilities actually occurred and a situation arose pitting coast guard against coast guard? What kind of enemy capabilities and dangers would USCG personnel face?

The Capabilities, Structure, and Assets of the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) was created in 2013 by the merging of five different organizations. These included the China Marine Surveillance (CMS); the Department of Agriculture’s China Fisheries Law Enforcement; the Ministry of Public Security’s Border Defense Coast Guard; and the Maritime Anti-Smuggling Police of the General Administration of Customs and the Ministry of Transport.15

The largest operational unit of the CCG is the flotilla, which is a regimental-level unit. Every coastal province has one to three Coast Guard flotillas and there are twenty CCG flotillas across the country.16 In 2015 the CCG possessed at least 79 ships displacing more than 1,000 tons, among which, at least 24 displace more than 3,000 tons. Most of these ships are not armed with deck guns but are equipped with advanced non-lethal weaponry, including water cannons and sirens.17  However, it seems that other CCG vessels are being armed with an array of more lethal weaponry. The China Daily Mail has reported that a number of CCG ships are being equipped with weapons which will give them greater strength to intensify law enforcement on the sea. The article also stated that China will transform many fishery administration and marine surveillance ships into armed coast guard cutters.18 The CCG has deployed a vessel (3901) that will carry 76mm rapid-fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns. This monster ship, displacing 12,000 tons, is larger than U.S. Navy aegis-equipped surface combatants.          

Chinese Coast Guard Mega Cutter 3901 (China Defense Blog)

Jane’s 360 reported that images circulated on the Chinese internet indicate that the CCG has equipped its lead Type 818 vessel with the Type 630 30 mm close-in weapon system (CIWS).Two turrets of the system have been installed above the ship’s helicopter hangar, providing it with a means of defense against guided munitions and hostile aircraft. Information also indicates that the ship has also been armed with a 76 mm PJ-26 naval gun as its primary weapon.19

Lyle Goldstein relates that the Type 818 design discussed above can be rapidly configured into a naval combat frigate. He denotes the key characteristics for this class of ship, including, “134 meters in length, 15 meters at the beam, 3900 tons, and with a maximum speed of 27 knots. The ship is armed with a 76mm main gun, two heavy 30mm machine guns, four high pressure water cannons, and will also wield a Z-9 helicopter.”20

A photo taken by the Japan Coast Guard on Dec. 22 shows a Chinese coast guard ship equipped with what appear to be gun turrets (circled) cruising in a sea area near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. (Japan Times)

Enter the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM)

In addition to their coast guard assets, the Chinese also deploy a vast number of fishing and merchant vessels that comprise what is referred to as the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM). China has the largest fishing fleet in the world and it uses these assets as a third force in their effort to control the South China Sea. The CMM is a paramilitary force that operates in conjunction with the CCG but is cloaked behind the international legal shield of being civilian commercial assets.21 A 1978 report estimated that China’s maritime militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels and a 2010 defense white paper reported that China had 8 million militia units with the CMM being a smaller subset of that group.

The CMM personnel are trained in activities such as reconnaissance, harassment and blocking maneuvers, and this organization possesses the potential to evolve into a more formidable maritime fighting force. Militia ships could be armed with light anti-ship missiles such as the C-101 or HY1-A and be trained in more elaborate tactics such as maritime swarm tactics interconnected by Network Centric Warfare (NCW).22

A crewmember on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23). Impeccable was conducting routine survey operations in international waters 75 miles south of Hainan Island when it was harassed by five Chinese vessels. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

Conclusion

It is entirely possible that the introduction of U.S. Coast Guard assets into the South China Sea area of operations will result in positive results in the form of increased capabilities and support off U.S. FONOPS and that USCG “white hulls” will relieve tensions in a conflicted milieu. However, there is also a possibility that USCG forces may become embroiled in actual conflict in the area; therefore, a comprehensive risk analysis should be undertaken before any considerable commitment is undertaken and the mission should be considered a “go” only if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

If the U.S. Coast Guard is faced with conflict in the South China Sea, it will not be alone in the effort. The full weight of the U.S. military will also be present. U.S. forces will be confronted with three levels of threat. These include the formidable Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the China Coast Guard, and the Chinese Maritime Militia.  It is obvious that the main counter to these entities will be the U.S. Navy and the allied navies in the area. The assets that the U.S. Coast Guard could contribute to the effort would be limited and the cost might be considerable. While such a mission would enhance the Coast Guard’s image, it may turn out to be folly rather than strategy.

Michael D Armour, Ph.D, retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Army and is an  Instructor of Political Science at The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee. He served as Adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and holds an M.S.S. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of Flotilla 15-03, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, in Memphis, Tennessee.

References

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea.html

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/china-is-fortifying-position-in-south-china-sea-2015-1

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html

[4] https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-asserts-freedom-navigation-south-china-sea

[5] https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/us-navy-carries-out-third-fonop-south-china-sea

[6]  https://news.usni.org/2017/07/02/u-s-destroyer-conducts-freedom-navigation-operation-south-china-sea-past-chinese-island

[7] http://www.businessinsider.com/us-navy-freedom-of-navigation-south-china-sea-fonops-2017-2

[8] https://chinapower.csis.org/maritime-forces-destabilizing-asia/

[9] https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-04-0/chinas-second-navy

[10] https://chinadailymail.com/2017/06/17/china-marks-south-china-sea-claims-with-coast-guard-marine-militias/

[11] http://roilogolez.blogspot.com/2017/01/trump-kelly-us-coast-guard-in-south.html

[12] https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/a-guide-to-stepping-it-up-in-the-south-china-sea/

[13] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/coast-guards-could-accidently-spark-war-the-south-china-16766

[14] https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/can-the-u-s-coast-guard-take-on-the-south-china-sea/

[15] Martinson, Ryan D., “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard” A paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference July 28-29, 2015 CNA Conference Facility Arlington, Virginia, p.2.

[16] https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=China%20Coast%20Guard&item_type=topic

[17] Martinson, op cit, pp. 44-45.

[18] https://chinadailymail.com/2013/06/19/china-coast-guard-ships-now-carry-weapons-in-south-china-sea/

[19] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/chinas-new-coast-guard-vessels-are-designed-rapid-conversion-18221

[20 http://www.manilalivewire.com/2016/02/china-is-arming-its-coast-guard-ships-with-sophisticated-weaponry-reports/

[22] Kraska, James and Monti, Michael, The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia, International Law Studies, Vol. 91, 2015.

[23] http://dailycaller.com/2016/09/24/how-the-us-should-respond-to-chinas-secret-weapon/

[24] Armour, Michael D., The Chinese Maritime Militia: A Perfect Swarm? Journal of Defense Studies, Vol. 10, No.3, July-September 2016, pp. 21-39.

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell returns to homeport in San Diego after a 90-day counter drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Oct. 6, 2014. During the patrol, the Boutwell participated in six separate cocaine interdictions. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell)

The PLA Navy’s Plan for Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, and Carrier Aviation

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

Introduction

Potential modernization plans or ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were revealed in unprecedented detail by a former PLAN Rear Admiral in a university lecture, perhaps within the last 2-3 years. The Admiral, retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping, revealed key programs such as: a new medium-size nuclear attack submarine; a small nuclear auxiliary engine for conventional submarines; ship-based use of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs); next-generation destroyer capabilities; and goals for PLAN Air Force modernization. Collections of PowerPoint slides from Zhao’s lecture appeared on multiple Chinese military issue webpages on 21 and 22 August 2017,[1] apparently from a Northwestern Polytechnical University lecture. Notably, Zhao is a former Director of the Equipment Department of the PLAN. One online biography notes Zhao is currently a Deputy Minister of the General Armaments Department of the Science and Technology Commission and Chairman of the Navy Informatization Committee, so he likely remains involved in Navy modernization programs.[2]

Retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping,
who delivered an unusually detailed speech on China’s naval modernization, slides for which were posted on multiple Chinese military issue web sites.

However, Zhao’s precise lecture remarks were not revealed on these webpages. Also unknown is the exact date of Zhao’s lecture, though it likely took place within the last 2-3 years based on the estimated age of some of his illustrations. His slides mentioned known PLAN programs like the Type 055 destroyer (DDG), a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship (for which he provided added confirmation), the Type 056 corvette, and the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile.

Most crucially, it is Zhao’s mention of potential PLAN programs that constitutes an unprecedented revelation from a PLAN source. Rejecting the levels of “transparency” required in democratic societies, China’s PLA rarely allows detailed descriptions of its future modernization programs. While Admiral Zhao occasionally plays the role of sanctioned “expert” in the Chinese military media,[3] it remains to be seen if he or the likely student “leaker” will be punished for having revealed too much or whether other PLA “experts” will be allowed to detail the modernization programs of other services.[4] 

Admiral Zhao’s slides also mentioned many known PLAN programs, and perhaps helped to confirm that it intends to build a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) large amphibious assault ship. (CJDBY)

While there is also a possibility of this being a deception exercise, this must be balanced by the fact that additional slides were revealed on some of the same Chinese web pages on 23 September. The failure of Chinese web censors to remove both the earlier and later slides may also mean their revelation may be a psychological operation to intimidate future maritime opponents.

A New SSN

Admiral Zhao described a new unidentified 7,000-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) that will feature a “new type of powerplant…new weapon system [and] electronic information system.” An image shows this SSN featuring a sound isolation raft and propulsor which should reduce its acoustic signature, 12 cruise missile tubes in front of the sail, and a bow and sail similar to the current Type 093 SSN. This design appears to have a single hull, which would be a departure from current PLAN submarine design practice, but the 7,000 ton weigh suggests it may reflect the lower-cost weight and capability balance seen in current U.S. and British SSNs.[5]   

It is not known if this represents the next generation Type 095 SSN expected to enter production in the next decade. However, in 2015 the Asian Military Review journal reported the PLAN would build up to 14 Type 095s.[6]

Of some interest, Admiral Zhao describes a new 7,000 ton nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN), showing acoustic capability enhancements, internal storage for 12 large missiles, but design similarities with the older Type 093 SSN. (CJDBY)

Small Nuclear Powerplant

Zhao also revealed the PLAN may be working on a novel low power/low pressure auxiliary nuclear powerplant for electricity generation for fitting into conventional submarine designs, possibly succeeding the PLAN’s current Stirling engine-based air independent propulsion (AIP) systems. One slide seems to suggest that the PLAN will continue to build smaller submarines around the size of current conventional powered designs, but that they will be modified to carry the new nuclear auxiliary powerplant to give them endurance advantages of nuclear power.  

Admiral Zhao suggests that the PLAN is developing a new nuclear reactor-powered auxiliary power unit to charge the batteries of smaller and less expensive conventional submarines, allowing the PLAN to more rapidly increase its numbers of “nuclear” powered submarines. (CJDBY)

Zhao’s diagram of this powerplant shows similarities to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 auxiliary nuclear powerplant tested in the late 1980s on a Project 651 Juliet conventional cruise missile submarine (SSG).[7] Reports indicate Russia continued to develop this technology but there are no reports of its sale to China. Russia’s Project 20120 submarine Sarov may have a version of the VAU-6 giving it an underwater endurance of 20 days.[8] While the PLA would likely seek longer endurance, it may be attracted by the potential cost savings of a nuclear auxiliary powered submarine compared to a SSN.[9]

A slide of Admiral Zhao’s showing a diagram of a nuclear reactor powered auxiliary power unit for small submarines, appears to be similar to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 design. (CJDBY)   

Naval ASBMs and Energy Weapons

Zhao’s slides detailed weapon and technical ambitions for future surface combatant ships. While one slide depicts a ship-launched ASBM flight profile, another slide indicates that future ships could be armed with a “near-space hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile,” perhaps meaning a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warhead already tested by the PLA, and a “shipborne high-speed ballistic anti-ship missile,” perhaps similar to the land-based 1,500km range DF-21D or 4,000km range DF-26 ASBMs. At the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed its 280km range WS-64 ASBM, likely based on the HQ-16 anti-aircraft missile.

Another slide details that surface ships could be armed with “long-range guided projectiles,” perhaps precision guided conventional artillery, a “shipborne laser weapon” and “shipborne directed-energy weapon.” Chinese academic sources point to longstanding work on naval laser and naval microwave weapons.

Admiral Zhao’s slides also detailed new naval weapon ambitions, to include taking anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) to sea. This would greatly increase the PLAN’s ability to overwhelm U.S. ship defenses with multiple missile strikes. (CJDBY)

Future Destroyer

A subsequent slide details that a future DDG may have an “integrated electric power system,” have “full-spectrum stealthiness,” use an “integrated mast and integrated RF technology, plus “new type laser/kinetic energy weapons,” and a “mid-course interception capability.” These requirements, plus a subsequent slide showing a tall stealthy superstructure integrating electronic systems, possibly point to a ship with the air defense and eventual railgun/laser weapons of the U.S. Zumwalt-class DDG.

Modern Naval Aviation Ambitions

Zhao’s lecture also listed requirements for future “PLAN Aviation Follow Developments,” to include: a “new type carrier-borne fighter;” a “carrier-borne EW [electronic warfare] aircraft;” a “carrier borne fixed AEW [airborne early warning];” a “new type ship-borne ASW [anti-submarine warfare] helicopter;” a “medium-size carrier-borne UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle];” a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV;” and a “stratospheric airship.” 

Admiral Zhao illustrated PLAN aviation ambitions with an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft similar to a Xian Y-7 based test platform, but this may simply represent a generic carrier AWACS. (CJDBY)

These aircraft likely include a 5th generation fighter, an airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), an EW variant of that airframe, and a multi-role medium size turbofan-powered UAV that could form the core of a future PLAN carrier air wing. Ground-based but near-space operating UAVs and airships will likely assist the PLAN’s long-range targeting, surveillance, and communications requirements.

Submarine Dominance

Should the Type 095 SSN emerge as an “efficient” design similar to the U.S. Virginia class, and should the PLA successfully develop a nuclear auxiliary power system for SSK-sized submarines, this points to a possible PLA strategy to transition affordably to an “all-nuclear” powered submarine fleet. While nuclear auxiliary powered submarines may not have the endurance of SSNs, their performance could exceed that of most AIP powered submarines for an acquisition price far lower than that of an SSN.

Assuming the Asian Military Review report proves correct and that the PLAN has success in developing its auxiliary nuclear power plant, then by sometime in the 2030s the PLAN attack submarine fleet could consist of about 20 Type 093 and successor “large” SSNs, plus 20+ new smaller nuclear-auxiliary powered submarines, and 30+ advanced Type 039 and Kilo class conventional submarines.  

Such nuclear submarine numbers would not only help the PLAN challenge the current dominance of U.S. Navy SSNs, it could also could help the PLAN begin to transition to an “offensive” strategy against U.S. and Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). But in Asia it would give the PLAN numerical and technical advantages over the non-nuclear submarines of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. This combined with rapid PLAN development of new anti-submarine capabilities, to include its “Underwater Great Wall” of seabed sensors and underwater unmanned combat vessels,[10] point to an ambition to achieve undersea dominance in Asia.

An auxiliary nuclear- powered version of the Type 032 SSB could help enable multi-axis ASBM strikes. (CJDBY)

Such nuclear auxiliary engine technology also gives the PLAN the option to develop a number of longer-endurance but low-cost ballistic missile submarines, perhaps based on the Type 032 conventional ballistic missile submarine (SSG). Such submarines might deploy nuclear-armed, submarine-launched intercontinental missiles, long-range cruise missiles, or ASBMs. Auxiliary nuclear-powered submarines may be easier to station at the PLA’s developing system of naval bases, like Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan, and perhaps Hambantota, Sri Lanka. China can also be expected to export such submarines.

ASBMs at Sea

China’s potential deployment of ASBMs, especially HGV-armed ASBMs to surface ships, poses a real asymmetric challenge for the U.S. Navy which is just beginning to develop new long-range but subsonic speed anti-ship missiles. Eventually the PLAN could strike its enemies with two levels of multi-axis missile attacks: 1) hypersonic ASBMs launched from land bases, ships, submarines, and aircraft; and 2) multi-axis supersonic and subsonic anti-ship missiles also launched from naval platforms and aviation. ASBMs on ships and submarines also give the PLAN added capability for long-range strikes against land targets and overall power projection.

Carrier Power Projection

Admiral Zhao is indicating that the PLAN’s future conventional take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier will be armed with a modern and capable air wing, likely anchored around a 5th generation multi-role fighter. A model concept nuclear-powered aircraft carrier revealed in mid-July at a military museum in Beijing suggests this 5th gen fighter will be based on the heavy, long-range Chengdu J-20, but medium weight 5th gen fighters from Shenyang or Chengdu are also possibilities. This model indicated they could be supported by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for strike, surveillance or refueling missions, plus dedicated airborne early warning and electronic warfare aircraft. This plus the PLAN’s development of large landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, the 10,000 ton Type 055 escort cruiser, and the 50,000 ton Type 901 high speed underway replenishment ship indicate that the PLAN is well on its way to assembling U.S. Navy-style global naval power projection capabilities.

In Mid-July a Beijing military museum featured a model of a Chinese concept nuclear powered aircraft carrier, showing an air wing including J-20 stealth fighters, UCAVs, and AWACS. (FYJS)

But Admiral Zhao’s indication that the PLAN will be developing its own “near space” long-range targeting capabilities, in the form of a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV” and a “stratospheric airship” points to the likelihood that the PLAN is already developing synergies between its future ASBMs and its advanced aircraft carriers. This year has already seen suggestions of PLA interest in a future semi-submersible “arsenal ships” perhaps armed with hundreds of missiles.[11] Were the PLAN to successfully combine shipborne long-range ASBM and carrier strike operations, it would be the first to build this combination to implement new strategies for naval dominance.[12]

Arresting the PLAN’s Quest for Dominance

 Admiral Zhao outlines a modernization plan that could enable the PLAN to achieve Asian regional dominance, and with appropriate investments in power projection platforms, be able to dominate other regions. But it remains imperative for Washington to monitor closely if Zhao’s revelations do reflect real ambitions, as a decline in U.S. power emboldens China’s proxies like North Korea and could tempt China to invade Taiwan.

Far from simply building a larger U.S. Navy, there must be increased investments in new platforms and weapons that will allow the U.S. Navy to exceed Admiral Zhao’s outline for a future Chinese Navy. It is imperative for the U.S. to accelerate investments that will beat China’s deployment of energy and hypersonic weapons at sea and lay the foundation for second generations of these weapons. There should be a crash program to implement the U.S. Navy’s dispersed warfighting concept of “Distributed Lethality,” put ASBM and long-range air/missile defenses on carriers, LHDs and LPDs, perhaps even large replenishment ships,[13] and then design new platforms that better incorporate hypersonic and energy weapons. There should also be crash investments in 5++ or 6th generation air dominance for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

There is also little alternative for the U.S. but to build up its own undersea forces and work with allies to do the same to thwart China’s drive for undersea dominance. If autonomous/artificial intelligence control systems do not enable fully combat capable UUCVs, then perhaps there should be consideration of intermediate numerical enhancements like small “fighter” submarines carried by larger SSNs or new small/less expensive submarines. A capability should be maintained to exploit or disable any Chinese deployment of “Underwater Great Wall” systems in international waters.

It is just as important for the U.S. to work with its Japanese, South Korea, Australian, and Philippine allies. As it requests Tokyo to increase its submarine and 5th generation fighter numbers, Washington should work with Tokyo to secure the Ryukyu Island Chain from Chinese attack. The U.S. should also work with Manila to enable its forces to destroy China’s newly build island bases in the South China Sea. It is just as imperative for the U.S. to work with Taiwan to accelerate its acquisition of missile, submarine, and air systems required to defeat a Chinese invasion. Taiwan should be part of a new informal intelligence/information sharing network with Japan, South Korea, and India to create full, multi-sensor coverage of Chinese territory to allow detection of the earliest signs of Chinese aggression.

Conclusion

Both U.S. and then Chinese sources have tried to downplay the scope of China’s naval ambitions. About 15 years ago the U.S. Department of Defense assessed that China would not build aircraft carriers.[14] Then earlier this year a Chinese military media commentator denied that China will, “build 12 formations of carriers like the U.S.”[15] However, Zhao’s acceleration of China’s transition to a full nuclear submarine fleet, ambitions for new hypersonic and energy weapons, plus continued investments in carrier, amphibious, larger combat support and logistic support ships, point to the potential goal of first seeking Asian regional dominance, and then perhaps dominance in select extra-regional combat zones.

Former Vice Admiral Zhao’s lecture is a very rare revelation, in perhaps unprecedented detail, of a portion of the PLA’s future modernization ambitions. It confirms that many future PLAN modernization ambitions follow those of the U.S. Navy, possibly indicating that China intends to develop a navy with both the global reach and the high-tech weapons and electronics system necessary to compete for dominance with the U.S. Navy.  

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.  

References

[1] Poster “052D Hefei ship,” CJDBY Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-1-1.html; Poster “Kyushu universal,” FYJS Web Page, August 21, 2017, http://www.fyjs.cn/thread-1879203-1-1.html; and for some slide translations see poster “Cirr,” Pakistan Defense Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/2014-the-beginning-of-a-new-era-for-plan-build-up.294228/page-114; ; slides briefly analyzed in Richard D. Fisher, “PLAN plans: former admiral details potential modernization efforts of the Chinese Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 6, 2017, p.30.

[2] One biography for Zhao was posted on the CJDBY web page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-2-1.html

[3] “Deputy Chief Minister of Navy Equipment on the Contrast of Chinese and Russian Ships [我海军装备原部副部长谈中俄舰艇真实对比], Naval and Merchant Ships, September 2013, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2013-08-10/1023734607.html

[4] In 20+ years of following People’s Liberation Army modernization, this analyst has not encountered a more detailed revelation of PLA modernization intentions than Admiral Zhao’s lecture slides as revealed on Chinese web pages.

[5] For both points the author thanks Christopher Carlson, retired U.S. Navy analyst, email communication cited with permission, August 24, 2017.

[6] “AMR Naval Directory,” May 1, 2015, http://www.asianmilitaryreview.com/ships-dont-lie/

[7] Carlson, op-cit.

[8] “Sarov,” Military-Today.com, http://www.military-today.com/navy/sarov.htm

[9] For a price comparison between nuclear and AIP propelled submarines, see, “Picard578,” “AIP vs nuclear submarine,” Defense Issues Web Page, March 3, 2013, https://defenseissues.net/2013/03/03/aip-vs-nuclear-submarines/

[10] For more on Underwater Great Wall, see Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages

[11] A series of indicators on Chinese web pages was usefully analyzed by Henri Kenhmann, “Has China Revived the Arsenal Ship, but as a semi-submersible?,” EastPendulum Web Page, May 29, 2017, https://www.eastpendulum.com/la-chine-fait-renaitre-arsenal-ship-semi-submersible

[12] While the arsenal ship concept has long been considered on the U.S. side, and was most recently revived by the Huntington Ingles Corporation in the form of a missile armed LPD, the U.S. has yet to decide to develop such a ship. For an early review of the Huntington Ingles concept see, Christopher P. Cavas, “HII Shows Off New BMD Ship Concept At Air-Sea-Space,” Defense News.com, April 8, 2013, http://intercepts.defensenews.com/2013/04/hii-shows-off-new-bmd-ship-concept-at-sea-air-space/

[13] Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy Just Gave Us the Inside Scoop on the “Distributed Lethality” Concept,” The National Interest Web Page, October 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navy-just-gave-us-the-inside-scoop-the-distributed-18185

[14] “While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier.” See, Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 25, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[15] Wang Lei, “China will never build 12 aircraft carriers like the US, says expert,” China Global Television Network (CGTN) Web Page, March 3, 2017, https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d557a4e30676a4d/share_p.html

Featured Image: On 23 April in Shanghai, Chinese sailors hail the departure of one of three navy ships that are now in the Philippines, as part of a public relations tour to over 20 countries. (AP)