All posts by Felix Seidler

Will China’s Navy Soon Be Operating in the Atlantic?

An Important Stop

On his way back from a trip to South America in the summer of 2012 China’s Premier Wen Jiabao made the strangest possible stopover. He landed on an American-Portuguese air base on the Azores. The Lajes Field Air Force Base is one of many on the Pentagon’s list to be reduced or scrapped. In the National Review, anti-China hawk Gordon C. Chang speculated whether Wen Jiabao’s stop on the Azores island Terceaira could have a strategic-military context:

“Terceira, however, has one big attraction for Beijing: Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility where Premier Wen’s 747 landed in June is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure. From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea.”

The Azores
                                       The Azores

However, terror-filled visions of Chinese aerial patrols over the Atlantic are out of place. How would the aircraft, including personnel and equipment, get there? And what types of aircraft could perform such feats? China’s military is not blessed with too many long-range bombers or maritime patrol aircraft. Even if they had such capabilities, why should China try to send men and material, strongly needed in the Indo-Pacific, to the other end of the world? From these current practical limitations it would be easy, but wrong, to stop the discussion about China’s role and potential operations in the Atlantic. 

In order to show its flag in the Atlantic, it would be sufficient for China at this point to use the airport and the ports for, let’s say, a “scientific research station.” It is in a similar manner that the British, French, and others pursue their interests in overseas territories. Incidentally, such a station would be an excellent opportunity for electronic espionage – signals intelligence (SIGINT). Furthermore, as a former emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, Lajes Field might also be of interest for China’s space program.

Into the Heart of NATO

This new development in the territory of a NATO country must be seen in the context of China’s efforts in another NATO member, Iceland. China has heavily invested in the country’s ports and infrastructure because Beijing in the long-term expects an ice-free Arctic to open new shipping routes. Meanwhile in Greenland, whose foreign policy is administered by NATO member Denmark, vast quantities of important resources have also caught China’s eye and spurred development plans.

China is attempting to protect and project its strategic interests in the Atlantic and is doing so within NATO countries. This broader trend should not be dismissed without broader analysis. Such moves – note the plural – are something entirely new.

As stated above, the idea of an operational Chinese naval and aerial presence appears bizarre. Why should China try to station hardware, either civil or military or dual-use, on the other side of the world in the midst of a “hostile inland sea”? Viewed strategically, however, and it’s apparent that such a move would be a stab in NATO’s heart. In Iceland, China’s concerns (so far) are civilian and economic projects, but if the Portuguese government allowed the Chinese, in whatever form, a permanent presence on the Azores, it would be a strategic disaster.

What would happen if the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific antagonist settles into the home territory of the Alliance, in which the U.S. has since 1949 set the tone? The signaling effect within and outside NATO would be devastating. Obviously, NATO has never faced only friendly states, as members’ borders were often the literal front lines of the Cold War. But there are few parallels with the potentially hostile (a designation based on privately held beliefs of China’s intent and cyber efforts) power in the midst of the Alliance’s area. Would NATO Europe, as it is now termed in U.S. parlance, permit such a development by acquiescence or inaction, NATO Europe’s image in Washington would reach a new low.

 

Arctic Sea Routes
                       Arctic Sea Routes

Some of you may be thinking, but doesn’t the Malacca Strait, Gulf of Aden, Suez Canal, and Strait of Gibraltar separate China from the Atlantic? The answer again is due to the developments in the Arctic. In the long term, China’s shortest way into the Atlantic no longer leads through the bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean, but via the Arctic, once the Northeast Passage is ice-free. Regardless, it requires little to imagine Chinese ships, after a stop at the newly opened port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, sailing by the Horn of Africa and through the Mediterranean for a short visit further into the Atlantic. Due to the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 we could see a recognized requirement for presence for the first (and not last) time.

Heading South

Pop Quiz: Where have Chinese pilots performed their first takeoffs from an aircraft carrier? In the Pacific? Wrong. In the South Atlantic? Right. It is on the Brazilian carrier Sao Paulo that Chinese pilots trained for takeoffs and landings. With the initiation of such military ties, it’s possible that the Chinese pilots and their Brazilian trainers will someday have the opportunity to meet again alongside their carriers during port visits and joint exercises.

Such a vision may or may not come to pass, but China’s interest in the South Atlantic is nothing new, due to Nigeria’s and Angola’s oil, construction projects across the continents, booming markets, and vast extractive industries. Potential sites for Chinese naval bases in the South Atlantic are already discussed openly. If somewhat of a new development for the North Atlantic, Chinese interest in the Azores fits into the picture of China’s pivot to Africa further to the south.

Despite all the speculation: Calm down

China is years or decades away from establishing military superiority in expeditionary operations. China’s military has more than enough work to do in the East and South China Sea working under the slogan “Learning by Doing“.  It remains to be seen if and how far the dispute with Japan about the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands escalates, which could seriously alter China’s naval development trajectory. Further, the Chinese naval presence off the Horn of Africa since 2008 only exists, because it is welcomed by the U.S., India, and other countries in the fight against piracy.

 

Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.
Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.

For the foreseeable future, what China does in the Atlantic will have zero operational military relevance. The strategic and political implications are what matters. In London, with its own not-inconsiderable South Atlantic interests, and in Paris, these geopolitical developments will be watched closely. Washington, London, and Paris are likely able to bring enough pressure to bear on Lisbon that China will not settle on an island in NATO’s heart. The unknown variable is debt. Will Beijing buy so many Portuguese bonds that Lisbon cannot say no? Or will Europe exploit Portugal’s dependence on Euro rescue funds for its geopolitical aims to eliminate any designs China has on the Azores? We will see.

What to do?

There is a lot to doubt about China’s intentions. The growing nationalism, the behavior in cyberspace, and the more aggressive stance in the East and South China Seas speak for themselves. Nevertheless NATO Europe must focus on cooperation rather than confrontation. The reality is that the U.S. and NATO have already developed templates for successful cooperation with China’s navy off the Horn of Africa. Such measures should be continued and expanded, for example with counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and counter-terrorism efforts. However, the reality is that China is also developing its navy as an instrument of Indo-Pacific power projection, which will have the side-effect of enabling it to pursue its interests in the Atlantic stronger than before.

But there is no reason for doom and gloom if today in the capitals of NATO Europe the right geostrategic agenda is set and pragmatic decisions are made. It is all on Paris and London.

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 on twitter: @SeidersSiPo

Carriers of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.

Less Liaoning

Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program.  After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications.  Is this single ship a regional or even global threat?  What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?

Stay calm, people.  After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.

Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups.  According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.

Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force.  It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions.  Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training.  To reach this, China must still walk a long road.

Eye on India

How important is Shark Week?
How important is Shark Week?

However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset).  The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience.  India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks.  China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has.  And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.

 

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews.  China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training.  Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations.  Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014.  The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015.  In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020).  Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.

New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys

Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France.  The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.

For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore.  Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy.  However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers.  Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts.  This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience.  China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.

Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India.  In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise.  Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased.  Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive.  Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs.  While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production.  In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA.  The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.

Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.

India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage

Andmanen und NikobarenFor all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to.  Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases.  Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby.  For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.

By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy.  Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy.  The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean.  Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

South_China_Sea_claimsFinally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.

As mentioned, India has the geographic edge.  New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked.  And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints.  Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.”  This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population.  Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case.  In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world.  Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.

With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too.  So will other countries, like Australia.  It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.

Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game.  Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too.  Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure.  Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.