All posts by Felix Seidler

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

NATO’s Pivot to Russia: Cold War 2.0 at Sea?

Putin’s annexation of the Crimea shifts NATO’s focus back to Europe. Therefrom, maritime security’s relevance for the Alliance will suffer. Nevertheless, Russia’s new assertiveness has massive impact on NATO’s maritime priorities. Other than expeditionary missions, European homewaters are now the theaters of concern.

 

All Opportunities Gone

 

After the Cold War, NATO was never threatening Russia, but rather sent dozens of cooperation offers to Moscow. Moreover, if Russia would sincerely have seeked NATO membership, Putin would fly to NATO’s September Summit. However, in NATO, Russia would never have been eye-on-eye with the US, but rather would have found itself on a level with Germany, France and the UK. Thus, Russia would never have found the global prestige and geopolitical influence it was looking for. That is the real reason why Russia never joined the Alliance. Since 1991, there were many opportunities for naval cooperation between NATO and Russia.

In Partnership for Peace (since 1994) and the NATO-Russia Council (since 2002), the Alliance reached out to Moscow, aiming to work closer together at sea. Positively, some of these opportunities turned into reality. NATO and Russia were working together in the Mediterranean (Med’) in Operation Active Endeavour to combat terrorism and in the Indian Ocean to combat piracy. Moreover, the planned, but cancelled joint naval mission to protect the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons has shown the potential for increased cooperation. However, with the annexation of the Crimea, these opportunities ceased to exist.

Step up Black Sea Presence

Ukraine has no significant navy anymore. Instead, Ukraine’s warships were taken over by Russia, which makes Moscow’s navy, by numbers, larger than the US Navy. However, due to the warships’ poor quality, this increase in naval power does not present a game changer. Surely, a plus for Putin’s navy is that Sevastopol will remain a Russian naval base for decades.

Black Sea (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

After Sevastopol is lost, Ukraine’s only significant port left is Odessa. NATO’s response should be to support Ukraine in keeping at least a small navy. Moreover, NATO should give a guarantee that, in case of further Russian aggression, Ukrainian ships can find shelter in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey or Greece. In addition, SNMGs and SNMCMGs should pay regular visits to Odessa; on the one hand for partnership with Ukraine and on the other hand as show of force to Russia. Trips to Georgia should go along.

Like it or not – The Bosporus has become a bargaining chip. NATO should make contingency plans how to close the Bosporus for Russian warships, should Russia invade Eastern Ukraine or Moldova. NATO must make clear to Russia that a price to pay for further annexation of territories would the loss of access through the Bosporus.France, Please Cancel the Mistral Deal

French Mistral LHD. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Russia could have done military campaigns like Georgia 2008 or Crimea 2014 much easier with one of the Mistrals. One of these LHD would also be useful for Russia’s navy in campaigns against Moldova, with regard to Gagauzia and Transnistria, or even against Estonia, because the Mistrals can serve as a platform for command and control, attack helicopters and landing troops.

That Russia announced to base its Mistrals in the Pacific does not mean that they will operate there. For its Syria show-of-force, Russia deployed warships from its Pacific Fleet to the Med’.

Regarding the military balance in Europe, France would do its allies a disservice, if it would deliver the Mistrals to Putin. Instead, these vessels should remain either in Europe or in a like-minded country. Options where to sell the ships could be South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa or India; countries, which are looking for new LHD.

 

An even better idea comes from Jeff Lightfoot. He argues that “NATO should buy the Mistrals“. Like AWACS and AGS, the Mistrals could become a shared NATO asset. Although I fully support Lightfoot’s arguments for a NATO-nization of the Mistrals, I disagree with him about how to do that. After NRF and EU-Battlegroups failed, NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups are the only multinational units with combat capabilities, which ever really worked. Moreover, Europe was carrying most of the burdens in the SNMG, which face a serious of lack amphibious capabilities. Thus, the Mistral purchase should be mostly funded by the Europeans. Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Belgium could go for “NATO Mistral 1”, while the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Turkey could go for “NATO Mistral 2”. A NATO LHD in the Baltic or Black Sea would send clear message to Russia. Deployments to the Med’ or Indian Ocean would help to pursue Western maritime interests.
Sustain Superiority in the Baltic and the Med
Baltic Sea (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

With the entry of the Baltic Countries and Poland into NATO and EU, the Baltic Sea was a solely political issue, not worth military considerations. This has changed, too. However, this does not mean that we are on the brink of war. Nevertheless, NATO needs to make plans how to deter Russia from threatening the Baltic Countries from the sea. The Alliance must make sure that its naval superiority in Baltic remains clear. Deploying an SNMCMG to the Baltic and regular naval exercises, such as BALTOPS (non-NATO), are efforts worth doing. Moreover, Sweden and Finland should join NATO. Both countries would bring great contributions to NATO and their membership would even increase Russia’s isolation in the Baltic Sea.

Russia is no partner for cooperation in the Med’ anymore. Beside the consequences of Crimea, Russia’s show-of-force in the Eastern Med to cover Syria made clear that Putin is willing to use naval power in missions targeted against Western interests. In consequence, the Europeans have to prevent – politically – that Russia opens new naval bases in the Med’, for example in Cyprus or Egypt. EU member Cyprus must receive the clear message from Brussels that a Russian base on Cyrus is unacceptable. In addition, NATO should closely monitor all Russian naval activities in the Med’ and make plans about how to deal with them in case of further Russian aggression. Moreover, NATO states should close their ports for Russian ships to be replenished.
We Need Nuclear Deterrence
Ohio-Class SSBN, US Navy (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Besides guaranteeing NATO’s future, Putin’s Crimea annexation also ends the American and British debates about the need for a sea-based nuclear deterrent. The argument for retiring the SSBN was that state-to-state conflict was unlikely and, therefore, nuclear deterrence was outdated. However, sea-based nuclear deterrence provides the minimum of global stability we need to prevent devastating state-to-state conflict. Where could the conflict with Russia go, if global zero was reality? What would prevent Putin from sending Russian tanks through Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius? Surely not statements from Berlin to keep the diplomatic hotlines open.

No matter about the massive unpopularity – Europe will need the nuclear umbrella provided by the US, UK and France. We are not yet back in the pre-1989 times. There is not yet a Cold War 2.0 at sea. However, if we forget the lessons learned of nuclear and conventional deterrence, we may find ourselves in exactly these situations much sooner than we think.

NATO-Building Starts at Home

NATO’s pivot to Russia will shift attention away from the maritime domain back to the continent. Armies and air forces will receive, once again, much more attention than navies. While Putin’s aggression increased the importance of NATO for its member states, maritime security’s relevance for member states and, therefore, for the Alliance will decrease. In consequence, theaters like the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean will become of much less concern for NATO.

In case the Crimea Crisis did not happen, NATO, to sustain its relevance, would probably have looked for new maritime tasks in the Med’, Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean, maybe even in Southeast Asia. However, thanks to Putin, we will find NATO’s warships deployed back in the Baltic and the Black Sea. Given Operation Ocean Shield ends this year, we will not see NATO back in the Indian Ocean very soon; except maybe for a few friendly port visits. After Crimea and with Putin’s hands on Eastern Ukraine and Moldova, NATO’s debates about partners across the globe and global alliance are finally dead.

In response to Putin, NATO-building begins at home. We need NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, fully focused on the Alliance’s core business, reaching out to the member states’ ordinary taxpayers. The changing European security environment requires an emphasis on the big messages: Defense, deterrence and security. Thus, zeitgeist-motivated campaigns should be stopped. In these times, NATO must tell the people what armies, air forces really are for and how our soldiers serve their countries and our Alliance.

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

NATO Should Block the Bosporus and Assure its Allies

Felix is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik“. This article was published there at first

The times for good-will diplomacy are over. In response, NATO should block the Bosporus for Russian warships. Putin wants to play great power politics? Okay, let’s do it. 

Choose a hard line!
The last time the Alliance has been as relevant as today was 9/11 or maybe even pre-1991. After the German-French-Polish brokered deal in Kiev has effectively failed, the EU is out of business. Moreover, Russia obviously does not take the EU seriously. Hence, Europe needs to be backed up by American power. In short, we need NATO.

Picture 1

Ukrainian soldiers, left and unidentified gunmen, right, guard the gate of an infantry base in Privolnoye, Ukraine, Sunday, March 2, 2014. Hundreds of unidentified gunmen arrived outside Ukraine’s infantry base in Privolnoye in its Crimea region. The convoy includes at least 13 troop vehicles each containing 30 soldiers and four armored vehicles with mounted machine guns. The vehicles — which have Russian license plates — have surrounded the base and are blocking Ukrainian soldiers from entering or leaving it. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Good-will diplomacy and communiques about cooperation had their chance. They failed. Putin is pursuing a hard line and so should the West. Through NATO as a political alliance, the West should take a hard stance against Russia. Putin has already been part of the problem in Iran and Syria and he never intended to become part of the solution. Therefore, it is time that the West stops giving a damn about Russian positions.

Moreover, the UN will not be useful for anything. How could it, if Russia effectively decides what to do!? Therefore, let’s get down to business and do realpolitik as the Russians do.

Block the Bosporus! 
Putin’s aim is to have Sevastopol as a naval base in the Black Sea, so that Russia is able to deploy warships to the Mediterranean. Hence, to get a bargaining chip, NATO should block the Bosporus to all Russian warships, no matter whether they are leaving or entering the Black Sea. The blockade should not apply to civilian vessels.

Supported by a NATO decision, Turkey should suspend execution of the Montreux Convention, which grants Russian warships access to the Bosporus. NATO’s policy should be: As long as Russia intervenes in Ukraine, the Bosporus will be closed for Russia’s navy. Effectively, without access to the Bosporus, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will be useless and its warships in the Mediterranean will face serious operational difficulties.

Picture 2 

The Bosphorus marked by the red flash.

NATO should deploy one of its Standing NATO Maritime Groups to the Aegean Sea or to the Bosporus. Moreover, we need at least one US Navy vessel – maybe the USS Mount Whitney – around the theater to make clear that the blockade is absolutely serious. Thereafter, a simple deal could be: Russia leaves Ukraine and in return gets access to the Bosporus. Without that deal, Russia would keep a naval base in Sevastopol that is worth nothing.

Give Assurance to Eastern Europe
If the West does not do anything and Russia takes the Crimea, it is likely that eastern Ukraine is next. Our allies in Eastern Europe rightly worry about their security.

Personally, I have many doubts that Germany would be willing to defend the Baltic states in case of a Russian invasion. NATO/EU membership would not matter. Can you imagine Angela Merkel giving her approval to invoke NATO’s Article 5, then asking the Bundestag to approve the case of defense (“Verteidigungsfall”), re-institute the draft (which we would have to do then) and to send the Bundeswehr up to the Baltic to fight the Russians? I can hardly imagine.

Consequently, we have to renew security guarantees for our Eastern European partners now and we have to do it with more than just words. This could mean deploying additional fighters for NATO’s Baltic Air PolicingJames Stavridis has mentioned the NATO Response Force as an option, which could be, according to Stavridis, brought into “a higher state of alert”. Moreover, SHAPE should develop contingency plans to respond to any assertive Russian behavior concerning NATO territory.

Please do not get me wrong. I do not want to make the case for the use of force. However, I want to make the case that NATO, by use of its military power, has to draw red lines and make clear to Putin that – this time – the red lines will be enforced.

Picture 3 

Currently in the Mediterranean: the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77)

Will Germany lose face?
For Germany, this crisis is a moment of truth. In January, the President of Germany Joachim Gauck as well as the Defense and the Foreign Ministers established high ambitions for a more proactive German foreign and security policy. The most challenging issue is now, if Germany can deliver, that the stated new ambitions (at least partially) meet with reality. Foreign minister Steinmeier’s negotiation efforts in Kiev were a sufficient try to meet the ambitions; however, more has not yet been delivered.

By the way, where is Angela Merkel? Expressing “deep concern” on the phone to Putin will not have any impact. Given the world gets nothing else from Berlin but words, Germany risks losing its face once again. Hence, Germany should be one of the leading nations in creating a response by NATO to Russia’s aggression; including my proposed Bosporus blockade.

Russia is not the worst threat to NATO
Since 1992, NATO has been engaged in out-of-area and combat missions. This era was about to end anyway through the lack of political will, resources, and money. However, through Ukraine, NATO’s focus and relevance have settled back in Europe. We do not need NATO in Asia or Sub-Sahara Africa.

Instead, we are our worst own enemy. In principle, things look quite well: All NATO allies together remain superior to the rest of the world – economically, technologically, militarily, soft power-wise. In practice, the West’s performance has been very poor. In Syria, Russia, China, Iran, and Assad have very successfully played cats and dogs with the West – resulting in the supposedly-impossible declared survival of Assad’s regime. Even worse, Americans and Europeans let it happen that they became victims of Putin’s divide and rule game, under use of the chess pawn Edward Snowden. However, NATO states could succeed together in Ukraine and elsewhere, but this depends on strategic foresight and – most important – on political will.

Despite all the criticism, the Alliance continued to exist and through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it will continue to do so. However, to make a difference, Western governments, in particular the US and Germany, need to wake up and start doing realpolitik.

 

 Felix F. Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security PolicyUniversity of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik. This article was published there at first

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