Strategic Intentions: China’s Military Strategy White Paper

On Tuesday, China published its latest defense white paper.  Unlike its’ eight predecessors, this document was the first time that China publicly unveiled parts of its military strategy.  Even the paper’s title was changed from China’s National Defense to China’s Military Strategy.  Rather than the opaque and retrospective generalities found in earlier versions, the new white paper offered details about China’s strategic intentions and the future development of its military.

One Chinese military official went so far as to state that the greater transparency of the new white paper was a sign of a more confident China.  That said, many of the revelations contained in the document were hardly novel.  It profiled China’s decades-old “active defense” strategy, which maintains that China would always remain strategically defensive–though perhaps not so at the operational or tactical levels.  It also detailed the Chinese military’s primary aim: to prepare itself to fight “local wars under conditions of informationization”—in other words, regional conflicts in which command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (C4ISR) would play major roles.  That too was already known.[1]

But other revelations in the white paper were more illuminating.  It showed that China intends to focus its force development in four domains: cyberspace (it will boost its cyber warfare capabilities); outer space (it will take steps to defend its interests there, even though it is opposed to the militarization of that domain); nuclear forces (it will build a reliable second-strike capability); and finally the oceans.

Yueyang - China frigate

That last domain is what currently worries China’s neighbors the most, given Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the white paper highlighted Beijing’s intentions to further expand the Chinese navy and extend the range of its operations—shifting from “offshore waters defense” to “open ocean protection.”  The white paper argued that China’s growing overseas interests have changed the country’s focus from being a continental land power to a maritime power.  That has led China to prioritize its navy in its military modernization plans.  In what once would have been heresy in the Chinese military, the white paper declared that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”[2]

That means that in the future China would not only defend its coastline from attack, but also its sea lanes of communications through international shipping routes, including those from the Middle East through which over half of China’s oil flows.  That, in turn, means countries like India will have to get used to seeing more of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.  By the same token, Japan and the United States should expect more Chinese naval and air patrols in the Pacific Ocean and maybe one or two more Chinese aircraft carriers.

The white paper also listed China’s strategic concerns.  Chief among them was America’s “rebalance” toward Asia, under which the United States has increased its military presence and strengthened its alliances in the region.  The white paper also noted Japan’s push to revise its military and security policies, characterizing them as “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism.”  China’s “offshore neighbors” warranted mention too for their “provocative actions [to] reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied,” no doubt referring to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.

While the white paper’s greater transparency may be the product of a more confident China, it is still a country that has not escaped the classic security dilemma.  As the white paper itself observes, China’s neighbors are rearming and helping the United States bolster its security alliances.  So, even as China strives to improve its security, it has prompted its neighbors to seek ways to improve their security situations, thereby reducing the effectiveness of its own efforts.  That is something that China’s military strategy probably did not intend.

[1] “China sticks to ‘active defense’ strategy,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,  http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432675208303328.shtml; “White Paper highlights ‘active’ defense strategy,” interviewee Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, China Ministry of National Defense, host Han Bin, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/26/VIDE1432614727198411.shtml.

[2] China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015); “China’s defense white paper,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, host Wang Yizhi, Dialogue, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432668717544907.shtml.

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Ready for a Fight?: How America Could Respond to a South China Sea Crisis

Last Monday, an American littoral combat ship, the Fort Worth (pictured below), sailed just over 12 nautical miles from some of the artificial islands that China has built from reclaimed land in the South China Sea.  While the U.S. Navy has conducted such transits before to ensure freedom of navigation through the region, it was the first time that a U.S. warship came so close to Chinese-held islands.  The transit was part of a stepped-up American effort to deter China from asserting its claims in the Spratly Islands too aggressively.  That effort has included openly questioning China’s maritime claims in December 2014 and encouraging Japan to take a bigger security role in the region earlier this year.

USS Fort Worth - Littoral Combat Ship

Last week, the United States also revealed that it is considering sending its ships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles—the internationally-recognized territorial zone around natural islands—of China’s newly-built islands, which the U.S. does not regard as natural.  If that happens, an incident between U.S. and Chinese forces may well take place.

Currently the Fort Worth, based in Singapore, is the only U.S. warship whose homeport is anywhere near the Spratly Islands.  While the U.S. Navy plans to eventually base four littoral combat ships in Singapore, when that might happen is not yet known.  In the meantime, America’s thin grey-hulled line in the South China Sea will be very thin indeed.

Thus, the Pentagon must consider how it would respond to a crisis there if one should occur.  Broadly speaking, the U.S. Navy expects to flow forces into the region from other areas around the world.  But to reach the South China Sea, those forces would have to pass through or near a number of choke points.  Those choke points would be natural places where China could intercept U.S. forces.

South China Sea - U.S. Navy

The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, would be the closest reinforcements that the United States could dispatch.  It would also be the most susceptible to Chinese interception.  To reach the South China Sea it would likely sail down the eastern flank of the Ryukyu Islands and through the Luzon Strait.   On the way it would pass the Miyako Strait, through which submarines and warships of China’s East Sea Fleet are known to sortie into the Pacific Ocean.  Then, as the U.S. fleet passes through the Luzon Strait, it would face the full brunt of Chinese naval and air forces stationed along China’s southern coast, including the main bases of China’s South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang and Yalong Bay.  While the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines sailing underwater from Guam may avoid Chinese air power, both U.S. surface and subsurface forces would likely encounter Chinese submarines in the confined spaces of the Luzon Strait and in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, normally operating near the Persian Gulf, would be the next closest source of reinforcements.  Its principal challenge to reach the South China Sea would be to sail unfettered through the long and narrow Malacca Strait.  There, Singapore’s capable navy and air force could play a vital role in keeping watch for Chinese aircraft and submarines, even if it did not want to directly involve itself in the dispute.

The last forces to arrive might deploy from as far as Hawaii or the U.S. West Coast.  They would be largely drawn from the U.S. 3rd Fleet.  Those forces may choose to eschew the Luzon Strait altogether and support operations in the South China Sea from the Sulu or Celebes Seas.  There, they could operate in relative safety, though still within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles.  At least the mountains of Palawan Island would degrade the ability of Chinese land-based high-frequency direction-finding equipment and over-the-horizon radar to accurately target U.S. forces.  Resupply, particularly of ordinance, could be routed by air through Zamboanga (where U.S. Special Forces have operated for about a decade) or by ship through Davao or Koror.

All of which is to say that the success (or failure) of an American response to a crisis in the South China Sea depends, in no small part, to what happens in and near those straits, and that those straits should be very much present in the minds of U.S. naval commanders.  They also remind us of the abiding importance of geography, even in naval warfare.

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Japan’s Security Role in Southeast Asia (and the South China Sea)

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Japan would have any security role outside of Japanese territorial waters.  But in a January 2015 interview, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, related that Washington would welcome Japanese maritime air patrols in the South China Sea.  He said that they could help to stabilize the region by balancing China’s growing naval strength there.  That broke a long-standing taboo in Japan on public discussion of such uses for the Japanese armed forces.  While it still may be some time before Japan mounts maritime air patrols over the South China Sea, yesterday it held an historic naval exercise in those waters.

It was the first time Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force ever conducted a bilateral exercise with the Philippines.  Two Japanese destroyers and a Philippine corvette practiced how to deal with “unplanned encounters at sea.”  They exercised near Subic Bay, a big Philippine (and former U.S.) naval base that is only 260 km from Scarborough Shoal—the spot where Chinese and Philippine patrol boats were locked in a months-long standoff in 2012 and where the Chinese coast guard used a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen just last month.[1]

Even before the naval exercise, the Japanese and Philippine coast guards held a smaller drill in Manila Bay a week ago.  Later this year, Japan will deliver the first of ten offshore patrol boats that it promised the Philippines in 2013.  Manila plans to use them to better monitor its territorial waters in the South China Sea and prevent intrusions into them.  Security ties between the two countries have grown substantially.  Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe invited Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo to discuss greater security cooperation.  At the time, Aquino went so far as to say that “nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others… especially in the area of collective self-defense,” giving a nod to Abe’s efforts to loosen Japan’s constitutional constraints that prevent his country from defending allies under attack.[2]

South China Sea - Japan

Japan has also expanded its security activities with other Southeast Asian countries.  Early this year, it mended ties with Thailand, whose coup led to a surge of Chinese influence there and strained relations with its longtime ally, the United States.  In March, Japan signed an accord with Indonesia to enhance military exchanges and collaboration on defense equipment development.  And Japan has steadily expanded its military cooperation with Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute.  Japan promised it offshore patrol boats too.  In fact, immediately after the Japanese coast guard finished its drill in the Philippines last week, one of its cutters proceeded to Vietnam to participate in an exercise there.[3]  Japan has clearly sought a greater role in the security of the region.

Nonetheless, there is a question of whether Japan’s military can sustain a wider role.  Contrary to China’s claims, Japan’s defense budget has not grown much.  It rose less than three percent in the last year (and not at all in U.S. dollar terms).  Any real expansion of Japanese military presence in Southeast Asia will have to run on a shoestring until Tokyo can afford a true increase in military spending.  That is not to say Japan is without options.  Its new long-range P-1 maritime patrol aircraft would be useful for patrols over the South China Sea.  Moreover, Japan could enlarge its navy by simply slowing the pace at which it decommissions older warships, many of which are still highly capable.  But there are limits too.  Keeping older warships in service entails higher maintenance costs which may crowd out investment in new weapon systems.

As Japan expands its security role in Southeast Asia, new questions will arise.  Foremost among them is whether Japan’s new role will lead to greater stability or instability?  On the one hand, the absence of an adequately balancing force in Southeast Asia has given China a free hand to assert itself in the South China Sea, as marked by its massive land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands.  Given how grindingly slow America’s rebalance to Asia has been, Japan’s security support could be just what the region needs.

On the other hand, any minor incident between Chinese and Japanese forces in the South China Sea could easily escalate tensions between their two countries.  Anyone who remembers the accidental collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter in 2001 can imagine how a similar incident between Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and intercepting Chinese fighters could spiral into a major crisis.  Let us hope deterrence prevails.

[1] Mynardo Macaraig, “Philippines and Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters,” AFP News, May 12, 2015; Manuel Mogato, Adam Rose, and Ben Blanchard, “Philippines, Japan coast guards hold anti-piracy drills,” Reuters, May 6, 2015.

[2] Louis Bacani, “Aquino: Beneficial if Japan can defend allies under attack,” Philstar.com, Jun. 24, 2014, http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/06/24/1338501/aquino-beneficial-if-japan-can-defend-allies-under-attack.

[3] Rosemarie Francisco, Manuel Mogato, Linda Sieg, Tim Kelly, and Nobuhiro Kubo, “Japan steps up maritime engagement with Philippines, Vietnam,” Reuters, May 12, 2015; “Japan – Indonesia Joint Statement: Towards Further Strengthening of the Strategic Partnership Underpinned by Sea and Democracy,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mar. 23, 2015; Mitsuru Obe, “Japan Reaffirms Economic Ties With Thailand,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2015; Bagus BT Saragih, “Indonesia and Japan improve military ties,” Jakarta Post, Jan. 30 2013.

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Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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Lines in the Water: The United States and China’s Claims in the South China Sea

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of State released a 26-page technical report on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.  It detailed the confusion that surrounds those claims.  Starting with the unexplained differences between China’s claim lines on its 1947 and 2009 maps of the region, the report went on to identify “at least three different interpretations that China might intend, including that the dashes [on its maps] are (1) lines within which China claims sovereignty over the islands, along with the maritime zones those islands would generate under the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]; (2) national boundary lines; or (3) the limits of so-called historic maritime claims of varying types.”[1]  (Together, those dashed lines are what observers have often referred to as China’s “nine-dash” or “U-shaped” line in the South China Sea.)

South China Sea - China 1947 and 2009 Claims

The confusion that surrounds China’s maritime claims is not new; and Beijing has been in no rush to clarify the picture.  Indeed, putting China into a position where it had to clarify its claims and the legal basis for them was a main driver of why the Philippines brought its maritime dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in January 2013.  But the report was the first time the United States formally laid out its view of the confusion in such great detail.

Naturally, China denounced the report as American meddling in the South China Sea dispute and accused the United States of “taking sides” (presumably not China’s).  In light of the timing of the report’s release, ten days before the deadline for China’s reply to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it is easy to see why China might regard it as pressure.

But the report’s creation may be as much, if not more, of a practical move by Washington in the long run.  Whatever the outcome at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the United States has an interest in ensuring that the countries in the region (particularly China) know precisely how it understands the matter.  That is because American ships and planes will operate in the region in a manner consistent with that understanding in the future.  Already, there have been incidents between American and Chinese forces, like those involving U.S. Navy’s Impeccable in 2009 and Cowpens in 2013.

Just as China elaborated on the reasons behind its refusal to participate in the proceedings at the Permanent Arbitration, in part, to lay the foundation for a rejection of any judgment that the court might render, the United States may have created its report to establish a basis for its freedom to use the South China Sea, if China one day chooses to enforces its claims on (or above, in the case of an air defense identification zone) those waters.  Surely, China can appreciate that logic.

[1] U.S. Department of State, Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea, Limits in the Sea No. 143, Dec. 5, 2014, p. 23.

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