Category Archives: Asia-Pacific

Analysis relating to USPACOM.

Gliders with Ears: A New Tool in China’s Quest for Undersea Security

By Ryan Martinson

Today, Chinese underwater gliders operate throughout the Indo-Pacific, from the Bay of Bengal to the Bering Sea, from high seas to sovereign waters. These winged, torpedo-like submersibles are being deployed in droves to collect information about the marine environment. Traveling underwater in a vertical sawtooth pattern, gliders use onboard sensors to measure characteristics of the ocean such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and current speed at different depths to generate water column profiles. This data indirectly bolsters the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by expanding its tactical understanding of the ocean environment.

Scientists and engineers based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are also developing a new generation of gliders that could play a far more direct role in naval combat by detecting enemy submarines. Since 2014, experts at the PLAN Submarine Academy, working with colleagues at civilian institutions, have been equipping Chinese gliders with passive acoustic sensors. Chinese language records of their activities show a determined effort to adapt this technology for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), an enduring weakness for the PLAN—one that, if remedied, could shake U.S. conventional deterrence in the Western Pacific.

Why Gliders?

The PLAN has a very difficult time detecting advanced foreign submarines within Chinese-claimed maritime space. Modern submarines are stealthy, the ocean is vast and complex, and ASW is inherently difficult—for any navy. But the stakes are especially high for China, given the perceived threat that foreign submarines pose to China’s maritime security. PRC experts often lament that China’s “underwater front door is wide open” (水下国门洞开). China’s 13th Five Year Plan for Innovation in Marine Science and Technology frankly admitted that China “still lacks the ability to resist hostile threats from the deep sea.” One PLAN analyst declared, “the threats our country faces in the maritime direction mainly come from the undersea [domain], and the main gap with the powerful enemy [the U.S.] is also in the undersea [domain].”

To shrink this capability gap, the PRC has invested heavily in new ASW capabilities for its fleet while looking to the U.S. Navy as a model. The PLAN has built ocean surveillance vessels like the USNS Effective to tow acoustic sensors designed to detect submarines. The PLAN has also procured sub-hunting maritime patrol aircraft, similar to the U.S. Navy’s P-3 “Orion,” and it may soon begin equipping the fleet with an ASW variant of the Z-20 helicopter, often described as a close copy of the MH-60 “Seahawk.”

The PRC is also taking steps to build a network of sensors, some mobile and some fixed, to detect foreign submarines in operationally important areas. Together, these sensors would constitute an “undersea alert system” (水下警戒体系). Some ASW platforms use traditional hydrophones, which only capture information about the frequency (hertz) and intensity (decibels) of sound. However, to localize the source of the sound, multiple hydrophones are often combined into an array, which can be large and unwieldy. A single vector sensor, in contrast, is capable of determining the direction of a sound source. China is very keen on pursuing a new generation of piezoelectric vector sensors, which are far smaller than previous types. Their compact size also allows their installation on much smaller platforms like underwater gliders.

Gliders move up and down in the water column by adjusting their buoyancy while their “wings” enable them to move forward at an angle. As ASW platforms, gliders offer several advantages. Due to their low power requirements, some gliders can operate at sea for months at a time. Because of the simplicity of their design, gliders are also comparatively cheap—an important attribute since they must be deployed in large numbers to be effective. Unlike fixed undersea sensors, gliders can move to where they are needed (albeit very slowly, at just about one knot). Lastly, gliders can maintain regular communications with their operators by transmitting their location (and other information) and receiving new commands when they surface at the end of a dive.

How might the PLAN use acoustic gliders? According to the PLAN researchers working on the project discussed in this article, they would be used to “complete tasks such as autonomous detection, tracking, attribute discrimination, and sending back information on moving targets in sensitive waters or areas of denial (拒止区域).” The program director, Rear Admiral Da Lianglong, likened them to a front-door “security system” (安保系统). One of his briefing slides from a 2019 presentation suggests that the PLAN intends to deploy them in the relatively quiet, deeper waters of the Philippine Sea and northern South China Sea, operationally-important areas where China lacks islands to build fixed undersea arrays.

Rear Admiral Da Lianglong with colleagues at the PLAN Submarine Academy (Source:

The Dolphin Project

While the advantages of gliders seem obvious, there are also many technical challenges that must be overcome before they can be used in ASW. Since 2014, the PLAN Submarine Academy, working in conjunction with scientists and engineers from Tianjin University and the Qingdao Pilot National Lab for Marine Science and Technology have methodically surmounted many of these challenges and now possess a capable prototype glider, the “Dolphin,” which has already undergone several rounds of testing in the South China Sea.

The Dolphin is based on the Haiyan glider developed by researchers at Tianjin University. Like most sea gliders, the Haiyan is a tubular robot with wings and a visible antenna. However, it is somewhat unusual in that it is equipped with a small propeller, a useful feature if needed to surface quickly in the event of a potential submarine contact. Chinese oceanographers have already deployed Haiyan gliders within the first island chain and beyond. A specially designed Haiyan variant (Haiyan-X) is capable of diving to tremendous depths, including the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Another variant (Haiyan-L) has been built for greater endurance, purportedly up to five months of continuous operations.

The Dolphin Acoustic Glider (Source: KNS.CNKI )

The Dolphin looks like a typical Haiyan glider, except for a vector sensor protruding from its nose. Within the body of the glider, forward of the batteries, is its signal processor. indicating that the platform is designed to autonomously detect, classify, and locate undersea targets, not merely to record and transmit raw data for interpretation elsewhere.

The Dolphin project is led by the Naval Undersea Warfare Environmental Research Institute (海军水下作战环境研究所) at the PLAN Submarine Academy. It is overseen by the Institute’s Director, Rear Admiral Da Lianglong, perhaps the PLAN’s most accomplished expert on undersea science and technology. Rear Admiral Da has won numerous national, provincial, and military awards for his work on how the undersea environment affects sonar performance and submarine tactics.

Under Rear Admiral Da’s leadership, the Environmental Research Institute has shrewdly leveraged civilian organizations to help advance its mission. In 2013, his institute turned its attention to vector sensors. Then, in 2016, it joined with the Qingdao Pilot National Lab for Marine Science and Technology to create the Joint Lab for Civil Military Integration in Qingdao, with Rear Admiral Da as its director. This allows the Submarine Academy to benefit from the expertise, access, and resources available to the civilian marine science community. When Xi Jinping visited the Qingdao Pilot National Lab in June 2018, he spoke about the importance of civil-military integration in marine science. Rear Admiral Da stood beaming in the audience, the embodiment of Xi’s ideal.


The team at the Submarine Academy overcame several technical challenges to make the Dolphin a viable ASW platform including self-noise, contact localization fidelity, and overcoming the immense pressure water pressure of deep dives.

The first was self-noise. Researchers originally built the Haiyan glider for oceanographic research, where self-noise is far less of a concern. However, when detecting submarines, it is vital that an ASW platform be as quiet as possible to make it easier to distinguish the relevant signatures from other noises and thereby maximizing the signal to noise ratio. This is especially important when that signature is extremely faint, like those emitted by modern submarines.  

The Haiyan produces noise at the bottom of its dive, when a pump activates to increase buoyancy needed for the ascent. It also produces noise when the propeller engages. These noise problems, however, are simple fixes since the glider can be programmed to turn off its vector sensor during the brief periods when the pump and propeller are on. For the Chinese researchers, the real challenge was reducing the noise generated by the mechanisms used to maintain the glider’s course and attitude. Researched overcame this challenge by changing the position of the glider’s internal battery packs. Through a series of tests conducted at first in specially designed pools followed later by tests in the South China Sea, the researchers were able to optimize attitude and course adjustment mechanisms to reduce this self-noise.

Slight changes to the attitude of the glider presented a second challenge that had to be overcome: errant localization. The vector sensor receives data about the direction of a target in relationship to the attitude of the sensor at the time of detection. For this information to be tactically valuable, the glider required a tiny attitude sensor that would enable an onboard computer to locate the target relative to the surface of the ocean. Scientists at the PLAN Submarine Academy, including Da Lianglong himself, successfully developed a sensor for this purpose and it now equips the Dolphin glider.

Attitude sensor developed for the Dolphin (Source:  KNS.CNKI ).

Finally, Chinese scientists also had to develop a vector sensor that could reliably operate in the high-pressure environment of the deep ocean. Since many countries prohibit the sale of acoustic sensors to China, researchers could not simply import a foreign product. Since the early 2000s, experts at Harbin Engineering University have conducted pathbreaking research on vector sensors. The team at the Submarine Academy built off their work to develop a deep water vector sensor. In 2019, researchers tested the new sensor in the South China Sea at depths of 800 meters and 1,200 meters with promising results. That same year, Rear Admiral Da and several other colleagues at the Submarine Academy patented a vector sensor that could effectively operate down to 4,000 meters. According to their patent application, the sensor could be particularly suited for unmanned platforms like gliders “for use in submarine detection.”

Deep water vector sensor developed for the Dolphin (Source: KNS.CNKI)

Since 2018, the Dolphin has undergone multiple tests in the South China Sea, in the deep water northwest of the Paracel Islands. To date, Chinese researchers have only tested the glider’s ability to detect surface ships, which are obviously much louder than submarines. Two series of tests conducted in May and June of 2018 focused on reducing self-noise. Since then, the team has sought to refine the capabilities of the glider’s onboard systems. The most recent known tests conducted in January of 2020 offer a gauge of the Dolphin’s current capabilities. They also show the scale of the PLAN’s commitment to developing these platforms.

During the January 2020 tests, a Dolphin glider successfully tracked the movements of a 50 meter research ship (Haili) traveling at 8 knots at a maximum range of 6.5 km. As part of the same series of tests, a Dolphin glider also tracked a 60-meter merchant ship traveling at 11.7 knots at a maximum range of 11.4 km. The Dolphin also tracked the movements of a 192-meter container ship traveling at 15 knots at a maximum range of 11.2 km. Additionally, in January of 2020, a Dolphin glider tracked a 99-meter rescue and salvage ship, the Nanhaijiu 116, steaming at 14 knots at a maximum detection range of 14.4 km.

Next Steps

To be effective, a glider like the Dolphin would need to work in concert with other such platforms. A single glider would not be enough, since detection ranges will be very short and gliders are not very mobile. The PLAN will likely want to fill an operationally important area of the ocean with dozens of gliders, which will need to be coordinated to ensure efficient coverage. This will be further complicated by the fact that gliders, due to their slow speeds, are vulnerable to undersea and surface currents. Therefore, if one glider drifts out of a given area, another glider will need to move in to fill the gap. Researchers at the Submarine Academy and the Qingdao Pilot National Lab already completed simulations to address the challenge of optimizing the deployment of multiple gliders for target detection. However, these efforts have not yet been tested at sea.

Another challenge is autonomy in signal processing. Gliders will need to analyze the raw acoustic data they receive and determine if what they are “hearing” contains the signature of a target of interest. That task is fairly easy if the target is a 190-meter commercial ship traveling at 12 knots. But it becomes extremely difficult when it is a modern submarine operating at slow speed in the noisy waters of the South China Sea. Detecting and classifying targets has traditionally required humans (i.e., sonar technicians) in the loop. Developing systems that can mimic human intelligence will be vital for any autonomous ASW platform, and Chinese experts have been working on this problem for years, again, most notably at the Harbin University of Engineering. Researchers there claim they have developed unmanned platforms capable of autonomously detecting surface and undersea targets at long range and have tested them in lakes and at sea. In October 2018, the University signed a cooperative agreement with the Submarine Academy, although it remains uncertain if this will include collaboration on underwater gliders. In the meantime, researchers from the PLAN Submarine Academy and the Qingdao Pilot National Lab are proceeding with their own efforts to improve autonomy in target detection.

This relates to another huge challenge of filtering out false detections. Failing to detect an enemy submarine is bad, but declaring the presence of an enemy submarine where none exists could be potentially worse for the PLAN. It might deploy manned ASW assets to the area of false contact, wasting time and resources. Acoustic gliders will likely not be deployed for real-world operations until the PLAN is reasonably certain that onboard systems are sophisticated enough to keep false detections to an absolute minimum. In this situation, redundancy in the undersea alert system (i.e., many sensors in a given area) could help strengthen confidence in a target detection.


Writing in early 2013, before substantive work on acoustic gliders began in China, an expert at the 710 Research Institute boldly predicted—in his words, “without the least bit of exaggeration”—that the future development of underwater gliders would leave submarines with “no place to hide” (无处遁形). Almost ten years later, the PRC is still nowhere close to that. However, the PLAN has come a long way in a short period of time. This achievement has been made possible through a talented, dedicated, and well-funded research team at the PLAN Submarine Academy, a successful approach to civil-military integration, and institutional commitment to redressing China’s weaknesses in ASW. China now possesses a viable prototype acoustic glider that has undergone multiple rounds of testing in the South China Sea. China clearly intends to shut its “underwater front door,” and acoustic gliders will be one tool that helps it do just that.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

Featured Image: The guided-missile frigate Zhoushan (Hull 529), together with the guided-missile destroyers Taizhou (Hull 138) and Hangzhou (Hull 136), steam to designated sea area in East China Sea during a maritime training exercise in early January, 2021. ( by Liu Yaxun)

The Implications of Simultaneous Conflicts in South Korea and Taiwan

By Ki Suh Jung

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War. The following day, President Harry Truman ordered U.S. air and naval forces to support South Korea’s defense, which the United States would soon thereafter bolster with ground forces. On the same day, President Truman directed the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent any conflict between the Republic of China (henceforth Taiwan) and People’s Republic of China (henceforth China), each of which had been vying to unify with the other under its leadership. Had China taken advantage of the U.S. focus on the Korean peninsula by launching a large-scale invasion of Taiwan (for which it had been preparing), U.S. leadership would have faced the difficult decision between leaving Taiwan to fend for itself or diverting resources from the Korean War to support Taiwan. Although the United States was able to deter China from invading Taiwan in 1950 despite its concurrent commitment of forces to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, it may not be so successful today or in the near future given the current trend in the balance of military power. Therefore, South Korea and Taiwan must develop credible self-defense capabilities with an eye toward future North Korean and Chinese threats to better support the joint response effort with the United States, which may find itself engaging in a two-front conflict.

Today, both the Korean peninsula and Taiwan Strait remain as flashpoints. South Korea and North Korea are still in a state of war with each other, and the risk of a forcible unification with Taiwan by China has been increasing in conjunction with China’s growing assertiveness in both rhetoric and action. If South Korea is attacked again, the United States has already committed to “mutually meet the common danger,” as stated in the two countries’ mutual defense treaty. While the United States does not make a similar commitment to Taiwan – the U.S.-unilateral Taiwan Relations Act only states that the United States will “maintain the capacity…to resist any resort to force…on Taiwan” – President Joe Biden has thus far for Taiwan. Also, a recent survey showed that the majority of Americans would favor defending Taiwan with U.S. forces if China were to invade the island. Certainly, neither Biden’s statements nor the survey results equate to a shift in the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” but they do indicate that in a Taiwan Strait contingency, U.S. leadership will seriously consider the level of support for Taiwan, as it did during the mid-20th century.

If the challenges facing the United States in those flashpoint areas have largely remained unchanged, so have the opportunities for China. A future Korean peninsula conflict would consume much of the focus and resources of the U.S. military in the region, which China can exploit to attempt to solve the Taiwan question. However, a scenario in the reverse sequence is also plausible. If China’s leaders determine that a peaceful unification with Taiwan will not be possible by 2049 – the date by which the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is to be achieved – they may decide to resort to force. If the United States commits forces in defense of Taiwan, North Korea may sense a weakness in the U.S.-South Korea alliance and also launch an attack on its southern neighbor. As China and North Korea are treaty allies, they may discuss, plan, and execute such a two-pronged attack specifically designed to split US forces. After all, in 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung sought and received approval from China’s (and the Soviet Union’s) leaders prior to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.

While there are presently no indications that a major conflict in the Korean peninsula is imminent or even brewing, the two Koreas have come close to war before, perhaps most recently in 2010 following the sinking of South Korean navy ship Cheonan and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Even as South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in pushes for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations in his final months in office, however, the two countries are seemingly engaged in an arms race, with North Korea recently having tested a hypersonic missile and South Korea a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

On the other hand, cross-strait relations have deteriorated in recent years and Taiwan has come to dominate the discussion surrounding the U.S.-China strategic competition. Amid revelations of U.S. forces training the Taiwanese military, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has expressed “faith” that the United States would support the defense of the island. China has reinforced its vows for unification with Taiwan with its military aircraft’s incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone at an unprecedented frequency and numbers as well as military exercises in the vicinity of the island. And unlike in 1950, when the U.S. military was undeniably superior to China’s, China has embarked on an impressive modernization streak and has “achieved parity with – or even exceeded – the United States in several military modernization areas.” If China is determined to unify with Taiwan by force, it will most likely be undeterred by a U.S. show of force.

How can the United States best prepare for two simultaneous major conflicts in East Asia? The answers are numerous and range from posturing additional forces in the region to securing commitments from other allies and partners to deter aggression from North Korea and China. Another key mechanism that must not be overlooked is incentivizing South Korea and Taiwan to acquire the appropriate capabilities required to specifically defeat North Korean and Chinese invasion forces, respectively. For South Korea, that might include anti-missile systems, platforms to counter maritime special operations forces insertion, and advanced weaponry and equipment for its ground forces. For Taiwan, acquisition of anti-ship and -air missiles and hardening of critical infrastructure may be the wisest investments. Taiwan has previously been criticized for both lackluster defense spending and purchasing tanks and howitzers with questionable operational value in the face of the growing Chinese threat, but relevant defense investments become dire when accounting for the potential division in U.S. attention and resources towards multiple contingencies.

The purpose of this article is not to specify which equipment South Korea and Taiwan must acquire; rather, it is to emphasize that the military equipment they do acquire must be based on North Korea and China’s current and future military capabilities that are expected to be employed for an attack on South Korea and Taiwan. By acquiring appropriate capabilities, the two countries will significantly raise the risk of attack by their adversaries, perhaps to the degree that they reassess the likelihood of a successful invasion. At a minimum, by developing the ability for a self-sufficient defense, South Korea and Taiwan will be helping themselves by enabling the United States to employ its limited resources efficiently to support the defense of the two countries, especially if anticipating simultaneous conflicts.

The acquisition of “flashy” capabilities may be tempting in general and more so if they are perceived to signify an advanced military; however, all military equipment has a limited scope, and acquiring a specific capability creates an opportunity cost that prevents a country from acquiring another, more-justified capability. This is an especially important point to consider for South Korea and Taiwan, which have an aggressive neighbor whose stated policy is to unify with each country.

In both the U.S.-South Korea mutual defense treaty and Taiwan Relations Act, the United States effectively declared that peace and security in the Western Pacific is of national interest and it will strive to maintain them; but the United States cannot go alone, and it needs allies and partners. South Korea and Taiwan can support this common endeavor by investing in the appropriate capabilities vis-à-vis their adversaries’. Such deliberate choices are not for the primary benefit of the United States, but for South Korea and Taiwan themselves. History hints that in the future, the fate of the two countries might be more-closely-linked than currently realized. For the United States to support the continued security and stability of the two countries and the greater region, South Korea and Taiwan must themselves make wise decisions to bolster their security.

Ki Suh Jung is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer with experience in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured image: U.S.-made CM-11 tanks are fired in front of two 8-inch self-propelled artillery guns during military drills in southern Taiwan on May 30, 2019. (Photo via Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Déjà Vu at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham


Last year, CIMSEC published an article analyzing Beijing’s decision to send an unusually low-ranking delegation head, Lieutenant General (LTG) He Lei who serves as the Vice President of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Science (AMS), to the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The selection was a sharp departure from general past practice. In 2011, Beijing dispatched its Defense Minister (the highest-ranked representative to date) followed by the Vice President of the PLA AMS (lowest-ranked representative so far) the following year. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level PLA general officer, closer in rank to the other attending defense ministers. This year, Beijing chose once again to send LTG He to the premier security forum in the Indo-Pacific region, despite last year’s pledge to send a delegation led by a four-star officer of Central Military Committee rank.

It was speculated that Beijing’s decision was a subtle refutation of last year’s stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific” and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. Beijing chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism to deliberate such contentious issues. The South China Sea (SCS) is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly and as the Chinese might suggest, hostile agenda. There’s a growing sense within Beijing’s political elites that the SLD has become nothing more than an international forum to highlight (and shame) China’s perceived rule-breaking behavior in the region.

It was also suggested that Beijing may have been short-sighted. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States and its allies. China yielded another highly visible international platform where its competitors could stake out their strategic positions, counter Chinese strategic messaging, and further challenge and encourage Beijing to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

The following analysis compares and contrasts the 2017 and 2018 dialogues in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes while trying to answer questions such as why did Beijing again send LTG He, what message is Beijing trying to convey, and what does it portend for the region in the near future?

2017 SLD Highlights

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the keynote speech, averring that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order. The message implied that Beijing was undermining the rules-based order in Asia and warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States. Prime Minister Turnbull also exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

During the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond.” Secretary Mattis urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS. Secretary Mattis also restated America’s steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. 

During the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order), then-Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability and criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the East China Sea and SCS. Minister Inada also urged Beijing to follow international law and respect the prior year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The PLA delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delegation repeated longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and the SCS while expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible.”  

During the second special session (New Patterns for Security Cooperation), LTG He presented a self-serving speech underscoring the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework featuring “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.” LTG He emphasized China’s peaceful and benevolent rise that contributes to global peace and prosperity and promoted the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while promising to advance within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations the adoption of a Code of Conduct framework for the SCS.

2018 SLD Highlights

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote speech. Although the tone of his speech was largely conciliatory and deferential to Beijing, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific,” highlighting the critical role that America plays in the regional (and global) order, and underscored the imperative for a common rules-based system based on the consent of all.   

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 – Keynote Address by Narendra Modi (Photo by IISS)

During the first plenary session (U.S. Leadership and the Challenges of Indo-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis rebuked China for “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific and declared that America does not plan to abandon its leading role in the region. He also specifically called out Beijing’s destabilizing militarization of the SCS, while further encouraging and challenging China to act responsibly in accordance with established global rules and norms.

During the third plenary session (Shaping Asia’s Evolving Security Order), the Vietnamese Minister of National Defense General Ngo Xuan Lich made the emphatic point that “under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments.” Two weeks later, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry denounced China’s recent redeployment of missiles to Woody Island as a serious violation of its sovereignty in the SCS (Vietnam also has its claims) and that this has threatened freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also “requests that China immediately put an end to these wrongful activities and withdraw the military equipments it had illegally deployed on Vietnams Hoang Sa Islands (Paracel) Islands.”

During the fifth plenary session (Raising the Bar for Regional Security Cooperation), the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson largely echoed Secretary Mattis’ sentiments with the former making the bold statement on the SCS…“fait accompli is not a fate accepted” (referring to Chinese attempts to deny international access to the disputed waters). Both announced their intent to jointly sail their deployed naval vessels across the SCS to demonstrate their nations’ inherent right to traverse international waters and to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were again expectedly swift and coordinated, but much sharper and more assertive (and perhaps even better prepared) than last year. The PLA delegation forcefully defended Beijing’s military activities in the SCS and sharply criticized Secretary Mattis’ “irresponsible remarks” on the issue and for his unhelpful “hyping” of the situation. LTG He also took advantage of the public forum to reiterate Taiwan as a Chinese “core interest” and a “red line that cannot be challenged.” This is part of its deliberate campaign to push back hard against the Taiwan Travel Act, approval of marketing licenses to sell U.S. technology to Taipei that would allow for building of advanced Taiwanese submarines, a U.S.-Taiwan agreement to share defense research, and the dispatch of formal U.S. officials to the opening ceremony of a new office building to house the American Institute in Taiwan (the defacto U.S. Embassy).   

During the fifth special session (Strategic Implications of Military Capability Development in Asia-Pacific), LTG He vigorously defended Beijing’s actions and activities in the SCS to include the recent deployments of weapon systems to its military outposts. He re-asserted the Chinese strategic narrative that the islands belonged to China, Beijing was only acting to defend the country’s indisputable sovereignty, and that U.S. FONOPs were the “real militarization of the SCS.” He also reiterated the point that China has not obstructed any military vessels following international laws and was open to discussions on the interpretation of FON. The rest of his speech characterized the ongoing PLA reforms and modernization efforts as benign and largely defensive in nature, praised Beijing for its constructive role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and repeated last year’s talking points on the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework and the BRI.   

So What’s Next

At the end of the day, the scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. It seems content for now to limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher-visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

That said, Beijing may one day conclude that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the biased and fading SLD, when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum? This regional forum is already widely seen in Beijing as a growing counter to the SLD and an important part of a strategic agenda to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect a re-emerged, revitalized, and restructured Xiangshan Forum after an unexpected and self-induced one-year hiatus.

The BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) ultimately needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics that the forum can help foster and promote under Beijing’s terms.

The new Chinese strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of interests – both long-term economic development with concomitant security reforms intended to restructure and realign global political and security order. This will be pursued in tandem with safeguarding and enhancing the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 


Beijing clearly views the SLD as an adversarial international forum used by its perceived strategic rival – Washington – and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value (but not necessarily the overwhelming need) to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept the criticism of China as a natural outgrowth of its rise as a global power.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: SINGAPORE (June 1, 2018) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 June 2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.


The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)