China’s island building in defence of nuclear missile submarines

“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise” —  Adm. Harry Harris

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Jan. 15, 2016)  The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts a live fire gunnery exercise with its 5-inch .54-caliber gun. Curtis Wilbur is on patrol in the 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt.j.g. Jonathan Peterson, Public Domaine

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Jan. 15, 2016) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts a live fire gunnery exercise with its 5-inch .54-caliber gun. Curtis Wilbur is on patrol in the 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt.j.g. Jonathan Peterson, Public Domain

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
February 26, 2016

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia/Wikimedia commons

It has been a long and expensive quest, but Beijing has now found a way out of Washington’s straightjacket aimed at blocking China from becoming an imperial power.

For the last 30 years or more, the barrier to China being able to project naval power into the Pacific and Indian oceans has been the control by the United States and its allies of the chain of islands and archipelagos stretching from northern Japan to the Philippines. This “first island chain” has effectively hemmed in Beijing’s navy by keeping eagle eyes on its every move.

Now Beijing has found a way around that barrier by first claiming sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, and now constructing islands with military installations and airstrips in maritime territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

When Beijing first began making claims to own 90 per cent of the South China Sea, claims that clearly had no legal or historical merit, the immediate calculation was that China lusted after the submarine oil and natural gas reserves, and the abundant fish stocks. The claim has generated strong push-back from Washington, which insists on the right of free passage across the sea, which carries some 25 per cent of global maritime trade worth over $5 trillion each year.

But the massive program in the last two years of dredging, island building, and military construction on previously untenable shoals and islets right down to Indonesia – about 1,200 kilometres from Chinese territory – has put a whole different complexion on this enterprise. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, this week told America’s House Armed Services Committee that China has created more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of artificial land in the last two years. At least half a dozen of the man-made islands have military bases, most with airstrips, and at least one is home to a squadron of fighter aircraft.

“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise,” said Adm. Harris. The admiral added that in order to match China’s increasingly capable naval and air power the U.S. needs “weapons systems of increased lethality that go faster, go further and are more survivable.” He said he is only able to deploy 62 per cent of the attack submarine patrols he needs to be sure of keeping the Chinese forces under control.

A key piece of the puzzle of deciphering Beijing’s intentions came this week with the discovery that China had built a high-frequency radar station on Cuarteron Reef, in the Spratly Islands and midway between southern Vietnam and Malaysia’s Borneo states. Cuarteron Reef is about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory at Hainan Island.

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Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy photo, Public Domain

Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy photo, Public Domain

The supposition is that China is preparing to enforce an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the whole of the South China Sea. It has already done this in the East China Sea as a tactical move in its spurious claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

What is emerging is that Beijing is constructing a network of military bastions in the South China Sea to protect its base for its fleet of nuclear missile armed submarines at the southern tip of Hainan Island. The base at Yulin is in massive caves constructed in the sea cliffs and is capable, according to U.S. and Indian intelligence estimates, of housing 20 Type 094, or Jin Class submarines, each carrying 12 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The nuclear missile submarines, known as SSBNs, are able to leave and return to the base submerged, making it hard to spot them from U.S. patrol aircraft or spy satellites.

By taking military control of the South China Sea and attempting to cow the other littoral states, Beijing is trying to ensure it can deploy its SSBNs into the Pacific and Indian oceans without them being detected by the U.S. and its allies.

The South China Sea offers several deepwater passages into the Western Pacific, the major one being the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines. But there are others between the Philippines and Malaysia and Indonesia. To get to the Indian Ocean remains more of a problem. The most direct route is through the Malacca Strait, which is well guarded by Washington’s ally, Singapore. To cut the number of times its warships have to transit the Malacca Strait choke point, Beijing has sought port visit privileges, including for its submarines, with Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

China’s naval ambitions are alarming several of its neighbours and driving them into the arms of the U.S. Much to Washington’s delight, China’s rampant military expansion has given Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the reason he wanted to water down the country’s “pacifist constitution,” imposed after the Second World War. The re-interpretations and amendments to the constitution allow Japanese forces to play a far more assertive role in partnership with allies.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and even old enemy Vietnam are boosting their military relations with Washington as a bulwark against what looks to them like Beijing’s dream of imperial expansion. However, Beijing has been clever at exerting divide-and-rule pressure among the 10 countries of South East Asia. China has used its economic and political muscle on Laos and Cambodia in particular to ensure that the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been unable to develop a common front against Beijing. U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the ASEAN leaders at a landmark summit in California on February 15 and 16. The hope was to develop a united front on the South China Sea issue, and to solidifying economic ties as the group forms a common market modelled on the European Union, and as the Trans- Pacific Partnership free trade agreement approaches completion. Progress on the economic issues was solid, but less so on political matters.

The mere fact that the summit happened underlines the reality that Asia and the growing confrontation with China will loom ever larger on the radar screen of whomever takes over the White House from Obama. It is to be hoped that when the U.S. votes later this year its citizens have in mind the real challenges for the next president. Forget the Islamic State group and the quagmire of the Middle East. Asia and the confrontation with China is where the real threat to North American interests lie. Indeed, the situation is fast approaching something that looks strikingly similar to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Washington’s attack submarines are already engaged with the Chinese navy in “The Hunt for Red October” cat-and-mouse games they used to play with the Soviets under the North Atlantic. Those tensions will only increase as Beijing tightens controls over the sea-lanes to Hainan Island and deploys more and more nuclear missile SSBNs.

The situation is all the more dangerous because Beijing’s belligerence is a sign of the weakness of the regime. Weak regimes make mistakes.

Since it gave up the spiritual draw of communism three decades ago, the Chinese regime has relied almost totally on economic growth for its political legitimacy. That period has come to an end because the ruling Communist Party refuses to make the fundamental political and administrative reforms necessary for the economy to move forward. Those reforms require the party to give up its exclusive hold on power by accepting such things as the rule of law, and effective oversight of the administration. Instead, the party appears ready to go down with the ship rather than plug the leaks and repair the engine while there is still time.

To keep itself afloat, the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is using two lifeboats. One is a massive expansion of authoritarianism. Chinese people have not been subject to the same kind of repression and restrictions since the days of Mao Zedong. And Xi is nothing if not an equal opportunity dictator. Foreign non-governmental organizations and even foreign companies investing in China are finding their China operations under increasing restrictions and bans.

Xi’s other lifeline is that age-old last refuge of a scoundrel: nationalism. Since he came to power as Communist Party boss and President over the winter of 2012, Xi has pursued an assertive and sometimes aggressive foreign policy aimed at convincing China’s 1.3 billion citizens that they belong to a powerful nation whose footsteps make the ground shake and other nations tremble. His first efforts were to goad Japan, China’s historic enemy. This was an obvious target because Chinese schoolchildren are indoctrinated at an early age with hatred of the Japanese, even though it was Japanese investment and technology that has made China’s “economic miracle” possible.

But supplanting the U.S. as the arbiter of peace and security in Asia has become Xi’s dream for China.

What we are seeing now has developed from another of Beijing’s imperial territorial ambitions; to take possession of the island nation of Taiwan and its 23 million people. But the U.S. has domestic legislation requiring it to aid the defence of Taiwan if the island is attacked. Thus for about 25 years China’s military planners have worked on the premise that in order to successfully invade Taiwan, they must first be able to deter or defeat any rescue bid by U.S. forces.

China’s building of a large fleet of attack submarines — now thought to number over 60 – is a major element in trying to make the seas unsafe for U.S. warships. Even more effective and a lot cheaper has been China’s development of a whole range of anti-ship missiles, which make elements like U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups very vulnerable.

The Chinese military planners could not go very far down this road, of course, before having to take into account that both China and the U.S. are nuclear powers. China insists it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, though only useful fools, fellow travellers and agents of influence would believe that pledge to be of any real value. But China’s problem is that if it were to be attacked by nuclear weapons, it has not had a serious second-strike capability. This phrase will be familiar to those who lived through the Cold War, but what it means is the ability to deter a nuclear attack because the enemy will know for sure you will have enough nuclear weapons that survive to be able to strike back.

China has worked hard to remove this weakness by making its nuclear weapons highly mobile and building safe sanctuaries for them in mountainsides. The most effective second-strike nuclear weapons, however, are on ballistic missiles in SSBN submarines. The dream of Chinese military planners has been to ensure the U.S. will never attack them with nuclear weapons because the Pentagon will know that lurking somewhere in the waters off California or New England are Chinese SSBNs.

When China first started developing SSBNs they were part of the Northern Fleet and based at Xiaopingdao in the Bohai Gulf. The problem with this location was that in order to go on patrol the submarines had to go through the shallow waters of the Yellow Sea, where they could be detected by the U.S. and ally South Korea. The other route was to go through the East China Sea, which is also shallow, and to risk detection by the Americans and Japanese allies on the Ryukyu Islands.

Hence the move to Yulin on Hainan and the push to turn the islets and reefs of the South China Sea into a network of bastions to protect the base.

Washington and its allies will now have to try to check Beijing’s South China Sea move, unless, of course, the U.S. administration is prepared to see itself overshadowed in Asia and its allies put at risk of Beijing’s tantrums.

Adm. Harris said this week he wants more submarines and better weapons to be able to keep the Chinese in check. Another development already underway is much closer military relations between Washington and Manila. This is essential if effective surveillance of the Luzon Strait is to be maintained. That will also require closer co-ordination with the Taiwanese military. It will probably work in Washington’s favour that Tsai Ing-wen has been elected President of Taiwan at the head of a majority Democratic Progressive Party government. The previous government of President Ma Ying-jeou, the Kuomintang whose ideology was dominated by Chinese who fled to the island in 1949 when the communists captured China, was far too interested in creeping into favour with Beijing to be trustworthy. Tsai and her party are dedicated to maintaining Taiwan’s independence, and can be expected to see a stronger partnership with the U.S. as a guarantee of that hope.

Other U.S. allies in Asia are beefing up their navies in order to be effective partners. Australia, for example, this week published a defence white paper envisaging a large increase in its air, land and sea forces, including 12 submarines and nine anti-submarine frigates. This move is bold because China has become Australia’s largest trade partner, especially as a buyer before the latest recession of Australian natural resources.

A Chinese government spokesman said Beijing regretted the Australian plans, which she said reflected “a Cold War mentality.”  She may be right, because that seems to be the appropriate frame of mind.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

References and further information:

Watch:  U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon flies over new islands in South China Sea — U.S. Navy video

Watch: Asia Maritime Transparence Initiative, Center for Strategic & International Studies video

 

 

From F&O Archives:

China’s war for Asian domination going well, JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 2, 2015

China manufactures islands to back its sovereignty claims. JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
September 10, 2014

Beijing takes another major step to control the South China Sea, JONATHAN MANTHORPE, International Affairs, May 23, 2014

Facts and Opinions is employee-owned and relies on the honour system: enjoy one free story. If you value independent, no-spam, no-ads,expert journalism, support us with a minimum of .27 per story, a $1 day site pass, or $20 per year. Donate below. Details here.

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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