A Big Deal: China Reveals Its South China Sea Strategy

The Buzz

Growing international criticism of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea and the publication of detailed images of China’s dredging and construction activities prompted the Chinese government to explain in greater detail than ever before the purpose of these activities. In response to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s charge that China has “intensified the militarization in the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and escalated regional tension,” and the release of a series of satellite photos by CSIS of recent dredging and construction activities on Mischief Reef, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying issued a lengthy statement on April 9. In addition to repeating prior positions that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters, and that China’s construction is “fair, reasonable, and lawful,” Hua stated that China’s activities aremainly for civilian purposes, but also are intended to serve “necessary military defense requirements.”

That is the first time that the Chinese government has officially acknowledged that its land reclamation activity is intended at least in part for military purposes. On September 9, 2014, when Hua Chunying was asked explicitly whether China’s large-scale reclamation work was intended for commercial or military use, she responded “As far as I know, the construction work China is undertaking on relevant islands is mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands.” On November 24, Hua made the same claim, adding that by improving the conditions for the island-stationed personnel, they can better fulfill their international obligations and responsibilities in search and rescue.

In the April 9 statement, in addition to acknowledging that China plans to use the outposts for unstated military missions, Hua also provided greater detail about the civilian purposes that the islands will serve. She maintained that China seeks to improve relevant functions the islands and reefs provide, to better safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, to better meet China’s international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, weather observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production services, and other areas.

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Hua added that the civilian facilities would provide services to China and its neighboring countries, as well as international vessels sailing in the South China Sea.

In other words, the Chinese are now attempting to assuage concerns about their artificial island building by claiming that these activities are aimed at providing public goods. Chinese researchers are also making this argument. For example, PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo wrote in an article published by China News Agency on March 8 that large scale radar stations are needed in the South China Sea for communication and monitoring. Citing the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Yin Zhuo argued for enhanced search and rescue capabilities to respond to possible sea and air accidents. China, he said, has “undisputed responsibility” for maritime search and rescue in the South China Sea based on an International Maritime Organization (IMO) determination in 1985 that “China and Chinese Hong Kong are responsible for the region north of 10 degrees north latitude and west of 124 degrees east longitude.”

Likely in response to accusations by the Philippines that China’s dredging is causing catastrophic damage to the coral reefs, Hua insisted that China had undertaken “scientific assessments and rigorous tests” to ensure that “the ecology of the South China Sea will not be damaged.” That China’s foreign ministry spokesman felt compelled to make this statement suggests that Beijing is at least somewhat concerned that it not be seen as harming the environment. This may be a useful pressure point for the international community going forward. ASEAN might consider asking the Chinese to share their environmental impact studies.

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China’s transparency, albeit limited, about its intentions should be welcome and be used as an opportunity to press for additional information as well as reassurance.  China should be urged to match the information it has provided on the potential civilian purposes of its land reclamation activities with similar details about the military functions its garrisons will serve. CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has confirmed that China is building a 10,000 ft. runway on Fiery Cross Reef that could enable China to monitor and potentially control the airspace over the South China Sea, which would provide greater capability to exert sea control. China might even plan to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) similar to the ADIZ it established in November 2013 in the East China Sea.

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Concerned nations should also demand that the Chinese pledge that they will refrain from using these new outposts for destabilizing and coercive conduct. This should include promises not to interfere with freedom of navigation and to forego establishing an ADIZ over disputed maritime areas. To make such commitments palatable to Beijing, they could be included in a Code of Conduct that not only China, but also ASEAN members, agree to. Creating such a legally binding Code is increasingly urgent.

This piece first appeared in on the CSIS Project website Asia Maritime Transparency Project here

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsAsia-Pacific

The Real South China Sea Crisis: An Environmental Time Bomb

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China’s accelerated construction activities in the South China Sea have understandably alarmed countries across the region and beyond. In particular, Southeast Asian claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines are deeply worried about the prospects of an irreversible Chinese consolidation of its sweeping maritime claims, more expansive Chinese paramilitary patrols in the area, and, perhaps most alarmingly, the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) across the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. seems to be primarily concerned with how China’s ambitious and sophisticated construction activities could pose a threat to its national interest in term of freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also been scrambling for an appropriate and timely response, more vigorously discussing the possibility of joint patrols in the contested waters to prevent further escalation in the disputes. An often neglected aspect of the issue, however, is the ecological implications of ongoing construction activities as well as illegal, underreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing across the South China Sea. Continued failure to address the environmental time bomb in the area could lead to a major economic disaster for all claimant countries, including China.

Geo-Engineering Wonders

In fairness, China is a relative late-comer in the ongoing construction game across the South China Sea. Back in the late-20th century, Southeast Asian claimant states such as the Philippines and Northeast Asian claimant states such as Taiwan were already able to establish relatively advanced structures, including airstrips, on the Thitu and Itu Aba islands, respectively. In the Spratly chain of islands, China occupies seven features (e.g., rocks, atolls, and reefs), behind Vietnam (21) and the Philippines (8).

Nonetheless, Hanoi and Manila occupy features that fall well within their 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. The same cannot be said about China, the southernmost province (Hainan) of which is located considerably farther. The more important difference, however, is the scale, speed, and sophistication of China’s construction activities across the Spratly chain of islands. While the Philippines and Taiwan have been building advanced structures on actual islands — that is to say, naturally-formed features that can support human habitation — China instead is artificially transforming rudimentary features (e.g., low-tide elevations, reefs, rocks, atolls, etc.) into de facto islands.

The artificial and permanent alteration of the nature of a contested feature is not admissible before international law, but it allows China to achieve de facto – rather than de jure – sovereignty over contested features. After all, China doesn’t even recognize the jurisdiction of any third party, under the aegis of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), when it comes to its sovereignty claims in adjacent waters. By all accounts, China is winning the scramble in the South China Sea. The accelerated pace of China’s construction activities may be linked to at least two factors.

First, China may hope to tighten its grip over contested features ahead of the expected conclusion of Manila’s legal arbitration against Beijing at The Hague sometime in 2016; and second, China may hope to deepen its strategic depth in the area before a more hawkish leadership replaces the Obama administration.

What China is doing in the South China Sea is nothing short of geo-engineering on steroids. It clearly presents both military and ecological threats to the region and beyond. In strategic terms, construction of advanced facilities allows China to establish military garrisons in the middle of the contested area, with Fiery Cross expected to serve as a command-and-control center for Beijing’s military and para-military activities across the South China Sea. Soon, China may be able to place advanced missile-defense systems, coordinate more sophisticated marine and air patrols in the area, and progressively prevent other neighboring countries from resupplying their personnel on features they already control.

The Environmental Conundrum

The other major concern is the potential ecological damage caused by the ongoing scramble in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a global leader in terms of biodiversity, thanks to its warm waters and tropical weather. China maintains that its construction activities are in line with its “lawful”, “reasonable”, “justified”, and “inherent and indisputable sovereignty” in the area. It recently mentioned “environmental protection” and “fishery production service” as one of the core objectives of the ongoing construction activities.

Other claimant states such as the Philippines, however, argue that China’s activities have damaged up to 300 acres of coral reefs, leading to “irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance” and costing neighboring states up to $100 million annually due to the negative impact on coral reefs, which are breeding grounds for high-value fisheries. Philippines’ coral reefs have also been damaged by American (USS Guardian) and Chinese vessels in recent years. By some estimates, 70% of coral reefs in the South China Sea have already been adversely affected by a combination of pollution, unsound fishing practices, mechanical accidents, and climate change.

Fisheries resources have been severely undermined due to over-exploitation and large-scale illegal fishing. In recent years, the Philippines has repeatedly apprehended Chinese andVietnamese fishermen for poaching endangered species such as sea turtles within its EEZ. Desperate to stem illegal fishing by foreign vessels within its waters, Indonesia has resorted to a more aggressive ‘sink the vessels’ policy. With China increasingly relying on itsfishermen-cum-militia armada to consolidate its claims in the South China Sea, illegal, underreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing will most likely intensify.

From the Northern Pacific, North Sea, and the Baltic to the Mediterranean and even the Yellow Sea, there have been numerous and relatively advanced efforts at establishing fisheries management and related environmental-protection regimes. As signatories to the UNCLOS and Convention on Biological Diversity, South China Sea claimant states should begin to seriously discuss necessary measures to address the brewing environmental crisis, which will affect the livelihood of tens of millions of people in the area with unimaginable socio-political and economic repercussions. This may after all be the biggest challenge in the South China Sea.

This piece first appeared in on the CSIS Project website Asia Maritime Transparency Project here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsAsia-Pacific

Watch Out, China: Asia's Dangerous Submarine Race Heats Up

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Thailand is the latest country in maritime Asia seeking to build up its submarine force.

According to local media reports, the Thai Royal Navy has formally submitted a proposal to the cabinet asking it to fund a submarine program.

Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich, the commander of the Thai Navy, explained the rationale behind his service’s desire to acquire submarines.

"Neighboring countries like Vietnam, Malaydsia, Indonesia, and Singapore have had submarines in their arsenals for many years,” Kraisorn said, according to Khaosad, a local Thai newspaper. "Now that I am here, I think it is a part of the strategy to improve our armed forces. It's my duty to submit the request to the government for consideration. Whether the government will approve it or not is up to them."

In the proposal, Kraisorn also stressed the urgency of the request, noting that even after it has been approved it will take some time before Thailand will actually be able to acquire the subs.

"Even if the government approved the purchase today, we won’t be able to acquire them instantly, because time will be needed to build the ships and send our personnel to receive training and improve their expertise for one to two years. So, it will take at least five or six years before submarines can enter our service,” Kraisorn said, according to the Khaosad report.

The navy’s proposal was not unexpected. Back in January of this year, the Bangkok Post reported, citing an unnamed official in the defense ministry, that the navy would ask to procure two to three submarines in the new defense budget.

“The navy has been vetting submarines from various countries including South Korea, China, Russia and France. South Korea's U209 model is said to be the least expensive at 11 billion baht apiece [roughly $338.7 billion].” The same report said that Thailand’s defense minister backed the proposal in principle.

Thailand has lacked a working submarine since 1951. However, the military has repeatedly tried to persuade the government to purchase subs, and many believe that the military coup in Thailand last year made it more likely that the navy would finally win this support.

Thailand’s purchase of submarines would be consistent with the general trend in the region. Indeed, maritime Asia seems to be locked into something of a submarine arms race as of late, with a number of countries expanding their undersea fleets.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the three countries that line the Malacca Strait— Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia— have all acquired formidable submarine fleets. Indonesia, in particular, has ambitious plans to acquire at least ten submarines by 2024, and ultimately may amass a fleet of between 14-16 vessels.

Vietnam, too, has been hard at work strengthening its submarine force. Most notably, it is purchasing six Project 636M Kilo-class submarines from Russia for $2.6 billion. It has already taken possession of at least three of these boats.

Meanwhile, across the South China Sea, Taiwan— which already possesses four submarines—is seeking external help to develop an indigenous capacity to build diesel-electric submarines. Japan, too, has one of the most powerful submarine fleets in the world, and is in discussions with Australia to sell Canberra its most advanced submarines. Japan may also sell India six submarines.

South Korea has also gone “all in” on submarines, with around thirteen subs already operating and ambitious plans to increase this number in the years ahead.

The Philippines is the latest country to express an interest in building an undersea fleet.

China’s growing military power is behind much of the desire to beef up submarine capabilities in the region. Beijing itself has rapidly expanded its submarine fleet in recent years, and now operates more subs than even the United States.

At the same time, China’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities have lagged, and this is especially true away from the Chinese mainland. As a result, many of the countries locked in maritime disputes with China see submarines as a crucial asymmetric capability they can use to beat back their larger neighbor’s military challenge.

This is not limited to small Southeast Asian nations, however. Even many in the United States believe submarines will be essential if Washington is to contend with China’s growing military might.

As Dave Majumdar recently noted on The National Interest, “A new class of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines could be the key to maintaining America’s future naval supremacy as new weapons increasingly challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.”

Image: U.S. Navy photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Game Changer: China's Massive Economic March into Pakistan

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The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is nothing short of a “fate changer,” said Pakistani Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the man behind the historic project. The excitement appears to be mutual, as China has shown equal enthusiasm for the project throughout a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Islamabad, which culminated on Tuesday.

Over 51 agreements and MoUs were signed between the two countries worth over US$46 billion, the largest ever investment in the history of Pakistan by any country.

The major component of the CPEC includes power projects worth US$35-37 billion for energy-starved Pakistan, and massive infrastructure development throughout the country through concessional loans of US$7–8 billion, with the lowest interest rates in the international market. A chunk of the investment will be used for the development of a 3000km rail, road, and oil pipeline network stretching from Kashgar in China all the way down to Gwadar port on the Arabian sea, operated by the state-owned China Overseas Port Holding Company.

CPEC is part of an expanding network of corridors that will link China's eastern industrial zones with markets in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. This will allow China to rapidly develop its interior and western provinces, which have “missed” the Chinese economic miracle.

The CPEC also holds symbolic value because it sits at the crossroads of China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, cutting the travel time and distance of freight, especially oil imports, by thousands of kilometers to China. Moreover, in terms of geopolitics, the CPEC fills the last slot for China to complete a web of economic networks in the region. With major investments already in place in Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh, China is shredding any Indian hopes of playing hegemon.

It's a surprise, given India's strong linguistic, historical and cultural links with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, that New Delhi missed the opportunity for economic integration with South Asia, allowing China to take the advantage. 

But China's economic inroads into Pakistan and its recent involvement in Afghanistan benefit the US, which has historically maintained a strong influence over Pakistan. With the US desperate to end its presence in Afghanistan, China is beginning to play a central role through its economic corridors in stabilizing the region for a US withdrawal, a win-win for both China and the US. 

For Pakistan, a country in a perpetual state of war since the 1980s and which has suffered near economic collapse due to the War on Terror, CPEC is an opportunity to boost it's sluggish economy.

'At a time when no country was ready to invest in Pakistan due to security concerns, China has come forward to make an enormous investment that has a potential to transform Pakistan forever', said Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal. CPEC aligns with the Vision 2025 economic plan of the Pakistani Government, which has regional connectivity as one of the seven pillars of Pakistan's future economic growth. 

The symbolism of this project is that it comes as investment, not aid. The latter is generally considered wasteful by authorities in Pakistan for having no real on-the-ground impact on poverty or development. 'Most of the aid goes to the non-governmental sector, and the bulk goes back to the donor countries', stated Ahsan Iqbal in an interview with AFP.

Such an enormous project comes with severe challenges, especially in terms of how much will eventually be delivered. And given Pakistan's fragile democracy, instability, a growing insurgency in the Baluchistan region (where Gwadar port is located), and dissident voices, many will wonder if these projects will see the light of day.

For Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who recognizes these challenges, the most important thing is to keep pace with China on the CPEC. According to him, “CPEC is the shortest but not the only supply chain route available for China,” and hence, if Pakistan is not able to implement and meet China's swift development, the CPEC will not go ahead as planned.

CPEC will face many hurdles, both domestically and from regional powers that may see it as a threat.  However, with a multi-billion dollar Chinese stake in the project, and Pakistan looking at it as a lifeline for survival, optimism remains high in both countries.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons Flickr

TopicsChina RegionsSouth Asia

How America's Bombers Could Become Even More Deadly

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The US Air Force announced this week that it will be consolidating all its heavy bombers in its Global Strike Command. This realignment will be culturally significant, as it will provide a single organizational home to all big bomber crews, including those of the forthcoming Long-Range Strike Bombers (LRS-Bs). While the requirements of the LRS-B are a public mystery, technological trends point to an expansive mission set. With that art of the possible emerging, the organizational heft of this new ‘Bomber Command’ may then spur some really new thinking, which the USAF genuinely needs for dealing with the mounting threat from China.

Let’s start with the org chart. GSC was (re)established in 2009, when Air Force Headquarters combined the nuclear-capable B-52Hs and B-2As of the 8th Air Force with the Minuteman III missiles of the 20th Air Force. But the de-nuclearized B-1Bs stayed behind as part of the 12th Air Force of Air Combat Command, where they had resided since 1992, when ACC was formed from the the merger of the Cold War Tactical and Strategic Air Commands. This realignment thus effectively reconfigures GSC as a Bomber and Missile Command. It’s not quite fair, though, to describe the remainder of ACC as Fighter Command, as it also houses the reconnaissance, surveillance, attack, and rescue aircraft.

This suggests that the proximate motivation may be focus. Kevin Baron of Defense One tweeted how General Welsh, the chief of staff, noted that the Schlesinger Report had recommended the realignment, and that he thought it “made sense”. As the press release put it, “a single command will help provide a unified voice to maintain the high standards” expected of training for penetrating, long-range combat missions. It’s not that a Fighter and Bomber and Everything Else Command can’t do that; the thinking is simply that a single Bomber (and Missile) Command might do so better, and possibly by adding a literal dash of esprit de corps.

That single Bomber Command has not always been an unalloyed good. For decades, the political dominance of the old Strategic Air Command unhelpfully propagated its pernicious safety obsession—admittedly born of nuclear surety requirements—throughout the Air Force. Ss Steve Davies wrote in Red Eagles: America's Secret MiGs (Osprey Publishing 2012), 

"There was some truth in the old saying that the Air Force had a book for all the things you were allowed to do in the air, and anything not specifically written down was prohibited; whereas the Navy's rule book contained all the things you were not allowed to do, and anything not written down was perfectly legal." (p. 205)

In part by watching the Navy’s positive example, in combat over North Vietnam and in practice over San Diego, Tactical Air Combat got its act together. So contrary to the mantra too often heard inside the Beltway, inter-service rivalry sometimes spurs healthy competition. You know, competition—that Anglo-American capitalist concept we should all revere. There’s a long literature, taught in the war colleges, about how inter- and intra-service rivalry is important for military innovation. You know, innovation—that thing that the Pentagon brass can’t stop invoking. It's amazing how often all this is forgotten amidst the centralizing tendencies of Big Government. 

So what might be different with this reestablished Bomber Command? To begin, the nuclear mission just doesn’t dominate the USAF anymore, and won’t. But more positively, those future LRS-Bs may bring combat capabilities broader than just bombing things. Little is publicly known about the aircraft’s stated requirements, but it’s quite possible that it will be a flying sensor array, much like the F-35. Assuming that the program doesn’t founder on its software integration problems (think F-35, just bigger), the LRS-B could serve as a flying frigate—reconnoitering, surveilling, bombing, and even shooting down enemy fighters.

How’s that? As John Stillion argues in his new monograph Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority (CSBA, April 2015), air combat hardly involves dogfighting anymore, so with the right sensors, big bombers could defend themselves from fighters. Indeed, the bigger the plane, the further the bigger array can see. In a further development of the views he and Scott Perdue briefed in the infamous Air Combat Past, Present and Future (RAND, August 2008), he also argues that magazine size matters, as not all missiles hit, so this again favors the bombers. Between RAND and the CSBA, Stillion spent a few years at bomber-builder Northrop Grumman’s Analysis Center, so his thinking might align with at least one contractor’s conception of the LRS-B.

Earlier this month, Colin Clark of Breaking Defense related the musing of an unnamed industry source that this shift in what’s technologically logical for the LRS-B might result in "a fleet of roughly 400 aircraft as the core of the United States’ power projection force.” But his source doubted whether that would happen, wondering “how will the Air Force leadership—primarily composed of fighter pilots—react to the idea of using ‘bombers’ to do the air superiority mission?” Well, they might not get the opportunity to squelch the idea, now that there’s a rivalrous unified branch behind the concept.

This new Bomber Command, that is, presumably won’t be run by fighter pilots. A bomber-heavy USAF could prove either a really good or really bad idea, but to know, bomber crews need early models of new aircraft equipped for operational experimentation. By generating the right requirements and allocating money for testing, 8th Air Force could show us whether there’s something worth developing. And over the vast distances of the Pacific, in the face of legions of long-range Chinese missiles, an expansive mission set for long-range aircraft could be worth buying.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council, where this article first appeared