The Future of China’s Expeditionary Operations

Originally posted on the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik“. This article was published there at first. Written by Felix F. Seidler. Felix is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik“.

China’s maritime top priorities will remain in the East and South China Seas. Nevertheless, extended expeditionary ambitions are real. However, more assertive Chinese behavior on blue-waters does not mean that great power conflict is inevitable. Coming East Asia Summits may be a forum for finding solutions.

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Global Soviet naval presence in the 1980s

Back to the USSR?
China does not seek an overseas presence as the Soviets did in the 1980s. They simply cannot do it, yet. The USSR needed decades to establish a global naval presence. For China, it would not be different. However, the world is watching how China is on the march to reach the status of a ‘medium global force projection navy’, comparable to the British and French. In terms of numbers, but not in terms of quality, Beijing’s navy has already surpassed Paris’ and London’s and the naval armament goes on:

During 2013 alone, over fifty naval ships were laid down, launched, or commissioned, with a similar number expected in 2014. Major qualitative improvements are occurring within naval aviation and the submarine force, which are increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland. — Jesse L. Karotkin, “Trends in China’s naval modernization – US China economic and security review commission testimony“, p. 1.

Moreover, ‘medium global force projection navy’ does not necessarily mean, that there are warships in all oceans. It means that China could globally project power on one or two theaters simultaneously, if its’ political masters so decide. Besides the question, whether a Chinese naval presence outside the Pacific really would have a serious impact, political prestige must be taken into account. Britain’s Indian Ocean presence does not make a difference. However, London decides to go there, just because they can and to pretend that Britain is still a global power. Beijing’s political and military elites might feel the same way. Often criticized is China’s military bureaucracy and corruption. However, for naval power projection, it does not matter, whether Chinese officers in Xingjang or Tibet are corrupt Maoist bureaucrats.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) second aircraft carrier is under construction. Given a six years construction time, the new carrier will be commissioned in the early 2020s. Present reports say, moreover, that China aims to build in total at least four carriers. However, except a research program for nuclear-propulsion, there is yet no credible evidence that one of the carriers will be nuclear-powered.

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PLAN carrier strike group

PLAN carrier strike groups
Accompanied by two destroyers, two frigates and two submarines, China’s carrier has been deployed for the first time to the South China Sea. Militarily, Liaoning’s trip may just have been an exercise. Politically, however, it was a clear message from Beijing: Our carrier can go to the South China Sea and we are there to stay. This has been the first “show of force” by a Chinese carrier strike group. More will follow. Simple exercises could have been done in closer home waters.

However, the more China invests in carriers, the less money will be available for other capabilities, like cruise missiles or submarines. Criticism on carrier acquisition often ignores that, after World War II, carriers have not been used in open sea-battle between major powers. Instead, carrier operations were always targeted on weaker countries or the support of land operations. Due to the lack of combat experience, the Chinese would never act that irrational that they would try to take on a US carrier strike group in open battle. If they would, it would end up in a slaughter. Chinese carriers would primarily go for show-of-missions targeted on inferior Indo-Pacific states, like Vietnam or the Philippines.

Moreover, in the earthquake, typhoon and volcano plagued Indo-Pacific, Chinese carriers are much more likely to go for disaster relief, rather than combat. Rather than fighting them, Chinese carriers will join their US counterparts in delivering water, food and medical care. Naval diplomacy and outreach to partners like Brazil will come along, too. However, wherever China’s carriers go, they will have ‘close friends’: US attack submarines.

Indian Ocean deployments
Since 2008, the PLAN has a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Officially, to fight piracy. However, side effect is the build-up of a new overseas presence. To understand what China could (not) do in the Indian Ocean it makes sense to look back what the Soviets did. Their naval presence in the Indian Ocean (late 1960s – 1991) was normally between 5-10 surface warships and a few submarines. However, there were no Soviet carrier operations, just due to the lack of carriers. Moscow’s intention were show of force, surveillance of US activities (like the SIGINT station on Diego Garcia) and, in case of war, open up an additional naval front to bind US capabilities, raid US supply lines and prevent US SSBN from striking Central Asia.

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An undated Chinese amphibious warship Changbaishan. Chinese state media claimed the ship was part a three ship flotilla that patrolled off the shore of Malaysia (Photo: Chinese Ministry of Defense).

China faces the same challenges as the Soviets did: Access through vulnerable choke points; no direct supply line by land and therefore the need for bases or port access; no air bases for immediate air support. In consequence, China’s approach would not be too different from the Soviet’s. Even though the Somali pirates are in retreat and international counter-piracy operations will be downsized, China is likely to somehow keep an Indian Ocean presence out of its national interests.

The recent Indian Ocean exercises of the Chinese LPD Changbaishan accompanied by two destroyers underline Beijing’s extended expeditionary ambitions. That one of the PLAN’s most sophisticated vessels was sent, henceforth, means that further intentions exist. However, for a real deployment such a squadron would need supply ships and tankers.

Nevertheless, in India China’s exercises caused concern about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Beyond India, weaker Indo-Pacific countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Philippines and Vietnam were psychological targets of this show-of-force. In Australia, Changbaishan’s Indian Ocean tour led to the perception of a change its strategic environment. Although a quick and limited tour, the PLAN’s Indian Ocean exercises obviously already matter.

Thus, we will see at least one, probably two PLAN frigates or destroyers in the Indian Ocean accompanied by a supply ship, maybe even an LPD. Port access may be granted by Pakistan, Yemen, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Thereafter, the PLAN could increase its presence gradually based on the gained experience, e.g. ship refueling on open waters. However, that does not mean that China will start fighting in the Indian Ocean. The most likely missions are counter-piracy, military diplomacy, disaster relief, evacuation of Chinese citizens and contribution to other international operations.

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There are three 094 Jin Class SSBN parked at Hainan (Photo: China Defense Blog).

PLAN submarines, due to their operational range probably only SSN, will continue to operate in the Indian Ocean. However, different to the Soviets there will no Chinese SSBN west of Malacca Strait. Why send them straight into the range of Indian and US anti-submarine warfare capabilities? In home waters, the Chinese can protect their second strike capability with surface warships and air forces.

However, the good news is that China is not going to freeride on stability in Indian Ocean provided by others, namely the US. Beyond the discussions about conflict, China`s presence will contribute to safe and secure sea lanes and to stability in the wider Indian Ocean area. Simply because it is in China’s national interest.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific
After numerous friendly visits and an evacuation operation in Libya 2011, the PLAN is now engaged in a real operation in the Mediterranean. Together with Danish, Norwegian, British and Russian warships, one PLAN frigate is protecting Danish and Norwegian freighters transporting Syria’s chemical weapons to an US vessel for the c-weapons’ destruction. China’s Mediterranean deployment is hardly motivated by altruism to what Europeans call “international responsibility”. Instead, the Chinese are just taking any opportunity they get to gain more operational experience.

In addition, China was only be able to deploy to the Mediterranean due to its Indian Ocean presence. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the PLAN operates in European homewaters from Cyprus, an EU member state. Interestingly, a Greek follower commented on Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik that EU is almost irrelevant in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given his’ perspective is right, China stepped into a vaccuum provided by Europe. That is how maritime power shifts become real. However, once Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed, probably in late 2014 or early 2015, China’s Mediterranean presence will end.

Moreover, we have seen Brazilian-Chinese exercises in the South Atlantic. Brasilia and Beijing seem to be happy with their naval cooperation, which makes its extension very likely. However, except the cooperation will Brazil and some friendly port visits, the debate about a Chinese presence in the Atlantic has remained purely hypothetical – and it will remain so for long.

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Several People’s Liberation Army Navy Houbei missile boats.

Win wars without fighting
If Peaceful Rise ever was real, it is definitely over. China’s latest Defence White Paper said clearly that China aims to win local wars under the conditions of informationization. Moreover, the White Paper outlined that China would not attack first, but, if attacked, it would strike back. However, the White Paper left open what China considers an attack. An attack does not have to be kinetical strike, but rather China could consider other states’ activities in waters claimed by China as an attack on its national sovereignty.

After China’s soft power was ruined by not immediately responding to the need for disaster relief at the Philippines (they send their hospital ship very late and only after harsh criticism from abroad), China lets hard power speak. Obviously, Beijing came to the conclusion that it is time to openly pursue a more assertive track, including the use of military power, which does not necessarily mean the use of force.

While talking about Chinas’s military rise, many observers mistake the use of military power for use of military force. Using force is always is always inefficient, due to the costs involved. However, as Sun Tzu outlined, the most efficient way to win a war is not to fight it, but rather allocate military means in a way to enforce one’s will on the other side without firing a shot. That is what China is trying to do. They do not follow the Clausewitzi’an dictum of open war as politics by other means.

China’s recently established Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) can be considered as a test of this approach. They extended their sphere of influence also by the use of military power, but without the use of force. As the test worked quite well from Beijing’s perspective, an ADIZ in the South China Sea could follow. However, therefore China would need much more tanker aircraft for aerial refueling and aircraft carriers for enforcing an ADIZ in the southern South China Sea.

China is now actively seeking, with the use of military power as a mean among others, control over areas it has not controlled before. More assertive Chinese behavior and Japanese responses increase the likelihood of unintended conflicts. The US, Japan and South Korea will have to react on everything China is doing, because they have to save their faces. For that reason, maritime Asia needs a collective system of conflict prevention.

East Asia Summit: Forum for solutions
Maritime security will be a geopolitical top priority through this decade and beyond. In the 2020s, China and India, both with at least three aircraft carriers, will operate sophisticated blue-water navies. China will project power in the Indian Ocean, while India in response will demonstrate political will in the Western Pacific. Great power conflicts, with or without the use of military force, looms on the horizon, but is not inevitable. Therefore, maritime security will remain on forthcoming East Asia Summit’s (EAS) agendas.

Asian countries, in particular China and Japan, should agree to establish military-to-military hotlines for the opportunity to de-escalate unintended naval incidents. In case of conflict prevention mechanisms, formal treaties are unlikely, because they would be hard to ratify in all states involved. However, by programs for mutual trust building and collective eschewal from un-announced unilateral measures, the EAS could establish a consensus for an informal modus vivendi in maritime Asia. An informal modus vivendi’s greatest plus would be that such an approach would allow all sides to save their faces.

Moreover, resource exploration (oil, gas, fish, minerals) have to be put on the EAS’ agenda. With ongoing globalization, increasing population, rising wealth and economic growth, sea-borne trade will grow even further, making these global economic lifelines even more vital for everyone. Now under research, deep-sea mining in the Indian and Pacific Ocean is likely to start in the 2020s. Competition about these resources will lead to the necessity to discuss how conflict can be prevented and how these resources can be used in a way that all party’s interests are suited. If Asia manages to increase maritime interdependence in trade and resources among all countries and for mutual benefit, this makes armed conflict less likely. No country will strike its own lifelines.

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