World interests are increasingly at risk in the South China Sea due to the economic and military rise of China and concerns about its willingness to uphold existing legal norms. The United States and countries throughout the region have a deep and abiding interest in sea lines of communication that remain open to all, both for commerce and for peaceful military activity such as humanitarian interventions and coastal defense. China, however, continues to challenge that openness, both by questioning historical maritime norms and by developing military capabilities that allow it to threaten access to this maritime region.
The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans – a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce, accounting for $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade annually. It is the demographic hub of the 21st-century global economy, where 1.5 billion Chinese, nearly 600 million Southeast Asians and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent move vital resources and exchange goods across the region and around the globe. It is an area where more than a half-dozen countries have overlapping territorial claims over a seabed with proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
In garb of global muddle due to fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic, China hads established two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands in the disputed waters. Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship, was spotted this month, conducting a survey close to an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas, threatening it, months after it undertook a similar patrol off Vietnam. China has also been flying regular fighter patrols near Taiwan, to the island’s anger, and has sent a survey ship flanked by coast guard and other vessels into the South China Sea. China’s navy recently, sailed a battle group, led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, around Taiwan’s east coast, and has mounted regular air force drills near the island.
The US alleges, China is taking advantage of the region’s focus on the pandemic to ‘coerce its neighbors’ with a crackdown in Hong Kong and saber-rattling around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Deterrence Theory in the Taiwan Straits
The US, effectively used the deterrence theory against the Soviets, during the Cold war. Deterrence theory, to protect the East Europe from communism, had mixed results, however, the success was hallmarked in the breakup of erstwhile USSR. Though that was widely believed to be result of a socio-economic collapse, however the use of such a strategy, during the last two decades, against China, has yet to bring about a reasonable result.
It all started with the March 1996 US-China confrontation, when the PRC carried out military exercises and missile tests near Taiwan. Upon this, the US deployed two aircraft carriers to the region, and placed this concern at the forefront of US strategic planning. The result has been increased US arms sales to Taiwan, the beginnings of a US Taiwan defence relationship focused on wartime cooperation, and heightened U.S. interest in missile defence.
Since then, China has steadily build up its response, focussed on its immediate shores while threatening the neighbours in a transcendentally menacing tactic, against taking shelter in US sphere of influence, by dominating the South China Sea aggressively. The aim to keep US forces out of the Taiwanese straits, while it intends to land and assume unification of Taiwan in mainland China, has been intermittently however steadily pursued.
South China Sea
As perfect foil by creating a stir in Vietnam Straits, China quietly started staking claim to South China Sea, farthest from China and closest to Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Chinese plea of its ownership, was disdainfully rejected by the South East Asian Nations as well as declared illegal by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at Hague in 2016. It ruled that China’s nine-dash line claim and accompanying claims to historic rights have no validity under international law; that no feature in the Spratly Islands, including Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba (or Taiping Island), is an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS).
Anti-Access and Area Denial (or A2/AD)
China’s needs, with regard to consolidating its control over the South China Sea are several, supposedly however incomprehensively inter-related. First, such assertiveness is entirely in keeping with, and a near-perfect illusion of China’s declared strategy of conducting offshore active defence, within the waters west of what it refers to as the “first island chain”. It is a string of islands running roughly from the southern tip of Japan along the Ryukyu Islands to Taiwan, the northern part of the Philippines, and then to Borneo. Encompassing the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, this sweeping maritime zone, through which run the vital sea lanes linking the Persian Gulf to Northeast Asia and Northeast Asia to North America, is viewed by China as its “near seas,” key to its economic security and national defence.
Hence, in a crisis or conflict situation, having a proven capability to deny a potential adversary easy access to these waters, or, should access be achieved, being able to complicate an aggressor’s ability to operate effectively within them, has become a strategic priority for China. In particular, limit the ability of U.S. military forces to operate on and above first island chain waters in the event of a Sino-American confrontation with the same degree of ease.
Ingoing with above, achieving maritime dominance in the South China Sea via offshore active defence and related activities, including the building of artificial islands and laying the groundwork for their militarization, is viewed by the Chinese as a critical and logical first step to setting in place the A2/AD capability along the lines outlined above. It is done, within waters that stretch over an area some 90 percent of which China already claims as sovereign territory. The fact that these waters are thought to be rich in seabed deposits of oil and gas, are not missed by the countries which have actual proximity to these islands.
As alluded to above, Chinese officials have long claimed ownership and “indisputable sovereignty” over features and outcrops in the Spratly and Parcel Islands, as well as elsewhere within the waters bounded by the illegal nine-dash line inscribed on Chinese maps of the region (first documentation revealed in China’s Politburo meet in January 2013), even though Beijing has never publicly explained or published the exact coordinates of this line.
A US China Faceoff
Since last three years, the primary US strategy for countering China’s land reclamation activities is to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) near China’s reclaimed islands, in order to reinforce the Pentagon’s pledge to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. However, China keeps up the harassing Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesian shipping and fishing in the region, either by its ships or its grey fishing militia, ramming the innocuous fishing boats, with their reinforced hulls.
However, this previous century’s tactics of area domination, by harassing the enemy has been a passé. No longer, this has a meaning, a lesson which China fails to grasp, as was seen in the PLA’s debacle in Dhoklam , when they tried faceoff with Indian Army. Similarly, the other militia actions against South Asian countries has no one blinking.
China’s Challenge to American Carrier Battle Forces: We have Missiles!
Chinese state-run media has boasted of a pointed defense of the capabilities of its so-called “Guam killer” missiles, challenging reports that doubted its ability to hit moving ships at sea.
While anti-ship capabilities of all the missile would require more testing as all the testing videos, with beautifully done dramatic music and effect, but it doesn’t show the missile hitting a moving target of any kind. Such a capability, looks like part of domestic fanfare, or to scare off regional southeastern nations, however, does it stack up against American Navel Forces? One aspect to keep in mind, there has been no conflict testing of such weapons, and all that is looking rosy, is all on paper.
PLA navy senior officers have been clamouring for sinking the two Aircraft Carriers, since 2018 when frequency of US Navy FONOPs was increased. However, is it so easy to sink an Aircraft Carrier? Even with the recently flaunted Hypersonic Anti-Ship Missiles?
A US Carrier fleet has Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers for missile defense along with ability to leverage the multiple launch tubes available on America’s destroyers. This is, till such time that the new counter-hypersonic weapons program, the Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (RGPWS) comes into battlefield.
Rather than talking about the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier, we should think about it as perhaps the most survivable airfield in the region, with more than four envelopes of air defence ” a senior US Naval said, when asked him about the new Chinese weapons and how the Navy plans to counter them.
The vessels are less vulnerable now than they have been since World War II, he said, noting the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet during the Cold War. He also declined to go into specifics about how the US Navy might thwart enemy hypersonic, however the very fact that still two Carrier Fleets are docked in Japan, needless to say some level of confidence.
“As you can imagine, it gets very highly classified, and through a combination of operational concepts and defensive systems, those carriers are able to have a big impact on the operational space and continue to survive,” he said.
As such, posturing of US Navy now, is poised for conflict, with the US Carrier battle force deciding to enter the thick of conflict once air superiority and suppression of Chinese Missile force, is achieved given 16 US bases in the region and over a 1000 aircrafts, comprehensive air defence, and numerous Missile bases. The US, since last two years, has been in negotiations with the Philippines for having additional Naval and land force bases in Vietnam. That may well be expedited by this current crisis.
The above comprehensive comparative evaluation, gives out a comprehensive overview of how US forces shall fare against China. It is evident that the relative advantage of the US over Chinese forces in diverse types of conflict, at varying distances from the Chinese mainland, at different points in time from 1996 to 2019. Advantage means that one side is able to achieve its primary objectives in an operationally relevant time period while the other side would have trouble in doing so.
To prevail in either of the scenarios below, China’s offensive goals would require it to hold advantages in nearly all operational categories simultaneously. While US defensive goals, could be achieved by holding the advantage in only a few areas. Though, China’s improved performance will raise costs, lengthen the conflict, and increased risks to the United States.
China viewing the current Pandemic, to cripple US warfighting capability, has now been busted. Within a week of China, posturing aggressively in the Vietnamese straits and South China seas,
Is China Combat Experienced or only Combat Ready?
A Pretty Dragon On Paper?
PLA shortcomings. For example, the two inabilities , a term that has appeared hundreds of times in official Chinese media, makes reference to two shortcomings:
- PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war is insufficient.
- Current military commanders are also not up to the task.
The PLA was last at war in the mid-1980s, some 35 years years ago. Today’s Chinese military has very little combat experience.
Put more pointedly, far more soldiers serving in the PLA today have paraded down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing than have actually operated in combat.
Earlier, the US security pan view was occupied with Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul that possessed immediate costs. In last three years, any realistic threat posed by China’s SCS policy paled in comparison i.e. no armies were being launched into battle, no civilians were being slaughtered, and no cities are being reduced to rubble. Though the US Navy had been preparing for the conflict, since 2018 Trump had been trying to evict from Afghanistan, to posture in the South China Seas.
China’s Carrier battle fleet is in Taiwan Straits and China has commissioned an amphibious battleship(supposedly to land troops in Taiwan shores) two days before. Also alarming is the fact that PLAN and PLA Air Force(PLAF) have not been seen in last four months of Coronavirus efforts, both in Wuhan and elsewhere in China. They are suspected to be barracked and wargaming to see an opportunity in this pandemic, to get assertive in the region, or land forces in Taiwan, in the least.
With the Chinese deciding to play Judas in the area, in shadows of Coronavirus, the US has come to the region, this time with intent.
The USS America amphibious assault ship and the USS Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, have been deployed and were operating in the South China Sea, under U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta was rushed to be part of this force, while one battleships each of Australia and Britain are likely to join soon.
This is indicative of an allied force, coming together in the region. While China may land forces in Taiwan, US Navy is postured to blockade South China Sea, especially, take over the delta of Spartly Islands, till it gets its forces in the region to liberate Taiwan. China, shall be in for a long battle in region, against a Titan allied force, with dwindling economy and blockaded, except the energy pipelines from Russia.
This war, shall set China back by thirty years, while losing its economy and assets all over the world, toiled for in the last forty years. Irrespective, the US shall redraw its posturing in the region, as a permanent resident, taking up more bases in the Philippines and Vietnam.
A short war in garb of Coronavirus pandemic, for claiming Taiwan, is not what China gets to choose this time. Either it is a stand-down or China has to gear up for a prolonged conflict, in the region.
27 Apr 20/Monday Written By: Fayaz