What Robert Kaplan so smartly dubbed “ Asia’s Cauldron ”— the South China Sea— might be set to boil once again. But the real kicker is who might be turning the switch to “high” on that virtual stove: none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Events thousands of miles away in Ukraine could set off a chain reaction that could see China become the undisputed ruler of this large body of water thanks to a large infusion of Russian weapons and technology— if the West starts arming Ukraine .
But before we get to all the juicy details of how China could become “master and commander” of the South China Sea thanks to Russian assistance, lets take a much needed survey of the latest drama show in this troubled body of water. Tensions are rising in the Asia-Pacific as China continues to change facts on the ground (“in the water” might be a better term), continuing work on several massive island reclamation projects that many analysts feel will create much larger islands housing airfields, ports, radar stations and maybe even anti-ship missile batteries. The motivation is quite obvious— Beijing would likely become the sovereign master of the South China Sea if these islands were used for the natural purpose of claiming sovereignty. Nothing says “ indisputable sovereignty ” by doing the things a sovereign does, like patrolling your supposed territory and enforcing your laws in that territory. Bases in the South China Sea could make that all too infamous nine or ten-dash line more than just big marks on a map somewhere in Beijing. They could make it a reality.
New South China Bases + A2/AD = A Nightmare for America and Its Allies
When it comes to Chinese military capabilities, much has been made over the last several years of the PRC’s growing ability to deny a technological advanced adversary (think the United States and/or Japan) the capability to intervene in various possible engagements near its borders (Taiwan and/or the East and South China Seas). Over the next several years, such capabilities are likely to evolve and improve thanks to technological innovations. Combining likely Chinese technological advances like longer range and more accurate cruise missiles, plus new bases in reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, is nothing short of a nightmare for U.S. and allied planners who are doing all they can to ensure access to vital parts of the Asia-Pacific.
Dubbed A2/AD by most Western military specialists, the PRC is slowly creating the conditions in which U.S., Japanese or other allied forces would suffer heavy losses if a conflict ever occurred in the out to the first island chain, and in the future, all the way to the second island chain. Across multiple domains of possible engagement (land, sea, air, cyber and space), Chinese forces have pursued a robust program to develop a set of unique weapon systems that take advantage of specific weaknesses in perceived U.S. and allied capabilities. While such capabilities are already robust enough that Washington and its allies are making plans to negate the impact of such a strategy ( see the Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GCC concept debate ), something widely missed in many open-source reviews of the problem is that Beijing is already at work on acquiring the next generation of A2/AD weapon platforms, along with developing matching tactics and strategies.
China, over the last several years, has developed 5th-generation fighter prototypes, increasingly sophisticated anti-ship ballistic missiles and longer-range land and sea attack cruise-missile platforms. Such systems are not easy to produce for any nation. If Beijing were to find a willing partner, one who might already have such technology, it could provide the quantum leap needed to field such highly advanced A2/AD weapons platforms years ahead of when domestic producers could do so on their own. Russia, looking for revenge over the crisis in Ukraine, could provide such assistance.
How Russia Could Help China: Weapons and Technology
Imagine this scenario : The West decides that it is time to arm Ukraine. Russia decides it needs to strike back— and not just in Europe. President Putin pulls out his map of the globe and looks for a place where Russian power would best stick it to the United States. His eyes light up on the one area that could not only strengthen ties with a potential partner but do real damage to America’s efforts to “pivot” to that part of the world: the South China Sea.
A2/AD Heads to the Sky: Here Comes the Russian SU-35
China is attempting to enhance its anti-access capabilities in the air domain with the much-rumored purchase of the SU-35 from Russia, a purchase that could become formalized if the West arms Ukraine.
With greater range than the current PLAAF SU-27/J-11, the SU-35 would give China the ability to deploy advanced fighter jets for longer periods of time in the East and South China Seas, improve the effectiveness of patrols in the recently declared East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and possibly help Beijing create an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The aircraft would likely be superior to most fighters in Asia (except the F-22 or later F-35) and fill the gap until presumably domestic 5th-generation stealth airframes come online. If China armed the plane with advanced anti-ship weapons and based them in newly created airfields on Johnson or Fiery Reef, a new and potent anti-access weapon would emerge, with solid capabilities to push allied forces back to safer waters.