Image Courtesy: Business Standard
Article Courtesy: 9dashline.com
The South China Sea is the most important maritime region in the world, with nearly one-third of global shipping passing through its waters each year carrying over $3 trillion in trade. It also has the distinction of being the second busiest, with merchant shipping transiting through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits towards either East Asia or the Indian Ocean. Rich in natural resources, it contains lucrative fisheries crucial to the food security of the region and massive oil and gas reserves in its sea bed.
It is also the most contested maritime space in the world. Several countries China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing territorial claims over the South China Sea. Points of contention between the various sides are many, with the waters around the Natuna Islands, Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys all serving as potential flash points.
China claims the entire body of water as its own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the Nine-Dash Line. Collectively these disputes have been regarded as one of the Indo-Pacific’s most dangerous points for great power conflict. The region is no stranger to conflict too, with localised clashes between naval vessels from competing countries resulting in a brief conflict between China and Vietnam in 1974 near the Paracels.
Lawfare too has a role to play. In January 2013, the Philippines formally initiated arbitration proceedings against China’s claim to the territories within the Nine-Dash Line. In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration decided in favour of the Philippines though notably this has been discarded by the Chinese.
Placing the dispute in a historical context
The crisis in the South China Sea has to be seen from a historic perspective if we are to understand its present. In 1945 the United States emerged as the resident great power in the region, forging close economic and security ties with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and assuming the critical role of security guarantor for these countries.
This was followed by securing a strategic position in Southeast Asia against the Soviet Union and Mao’s China by forging close defence ties with Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The security assurances provided by the US military, coupled with the advent of key regional institutions like ASEAN and Asian Development Bank (ADB), nurtured economic development in the region as countries prioritized economic growth and embraced globalisation. Overall the strategic landscape of the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia following the collapse of Soviet Communism was stable. In this context China projected a relatively responsible image, displaying an intent to transition towards a more open society and globalised economy.
By 1995 however, China was already beginning to display the colours of nationalism, announcing its intent to assert dominance across the South China Sea through a more forceful interpretation of the Nine-Dash Line. China’s claims remained shrouded in ambiguity however until 2010, following the global financial crisis and perhaps sensing an opportunity. In an official statement by their Foreign Ministry following an ASEAN Regional Forum Beijing claimed indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. The US response was muted, coming at a time when Washington was heavily engaged with military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US security interests in the region
Key US interests in the Indo-Pacific can be broken down into three sections, economic interests tied to sea lanes, defence relationships with allies and overall power of influence. In each of these dimensions Chinese efforts to seize control over the South China Sea only serves to damage American prestige in the region. The transformation of the South China Sea into a Chinese sphere of influence would signal the era of American leadership in Asia is over, and that a new preeminent power has taken its place.
The US is thus critical to maintaining the regional status quo through its formal defence ties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore in addition to Australia and New Zealand in Oceania. The outcome of this year’s US election and that of the Philippines in 2022 will have an enormous impact on the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, especially in the context of China’s assertiveness. America’s defence ties are supported by a robust network of military bases, ship rotations and by sustained diplomatic engagement.
One of the main pillars supporting the US presence in the region is the formidable 7th Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. It remains the largest forward deployed elements of the US Pacific Fleet with 60 to 70 ships supported by aircraft and marines. Its primary role is to provide a joint command to US and coalition naval operations in the region and is representative of the model of military deployment undertaken by the US Navy, a model that may now be changing.
A new US concept of operations?
US National Defense Strategies since the Cold War have focused on the concept of sea control, with the deployment of aircraft carrier task groups for power projection and maritime tasks. Carriers, such as those that operate with the 7th Fleet, do so with escorts which provide three-dimensional protection in a multi-threat environment. This traditional deployment pattern tied down cruisers and destroyers in large ship formations, offering less flexibility for other maritime tasks. However budgetary constraints have compelled the US Navy to review its future force structure plans and reduce the numbers of new ships under construction.
The US Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan has capped the fleet size at 355 by 2034. Whereas China’s naval expansion plans have progressed at an alarming pace and it is estimated that Beijing could field a fleet of 450 surface ships and 110 submarines as early as 2030. Numerically the number of naval combatants would favour the Chinese owing to their localised commitments and deployments. In contrast, the US is forced to balance assets across all theatres of interest to meet their global commitments.
In order to compensate for the reduction in force levels, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) is experimenting with the concept of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). This means covering a large area of interest via the deployment of dispersed units, instead of rigid formations. Wider dispersion of ships would hold an adversary at risk from multiple directions and force them to defend an increased number of vulnerabilities, in theory stretching their capabilities.
Hence in a DMO concept, aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships may operate independently for long periods of time. It would also mean that cruisers and destroyers are not deployed to escort high value ships. DMO would be supported by Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) which would ensure the transfer of real time raw fire control picture to Combat Management Systems of all units unlike a Tactical Data Link (TDL), which transfers only processed data – causing time delay.
In reality, it would be a shift from achieving sea control through large fleet formations to dispersed units covering wider areas of interest in the maritime domain. One major advantage with the DMO concept is that even low value combatants like the Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) or unmanned surface vehicles (USV) could be deployed to support such operations.
China’s A2/AD strategy
China’s concept of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) has been the focus of an earlier article, however, the salient features are worth highlighting with respect to understanding the US response.
China is seeking to extend its reach in the South China Sea by creating military infrastructure on artificial islands including the construction of airstrips, submarine pens, berthing facilities and logistical support for naval ships and advanced air defence systems. We may also witness the deployment of ballistic missile launching facilities and anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) systems to these islands in the near future.
As part of its A2/AD strategy, Beijing is also planning to establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. Taking a cue from the East China Sea experience, the challenges of implementing an ADIZ near Southeast Asia would be even greater.
The key element to an effective A2/AD strategy is the requirement of credible long-range air defences. The KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, Y-9 electronic intelligence and Y-9 airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft are all expected to play a major role in delivering A2/AD. Beijing’s islands can then be fortified with DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile systems and cruise missile systems to complete the anti-access bubble, providing a significant threat to American carrier battle groups and other surface ships.
Naval bases in the South China Sea can also be expected to host Type 055 destroyers with the first ship of this class having entered service in Jan 2020 while five more are currently in the pipe line. Their primary role will be to form part of a Chinese carrier strike group providing air and surface defense to complement the implementation of an ADIZ and the wider A2/AD strategy. Submarines would complete Beijing’s approach and prove key in locking the US and its allies out of the South China Sea. Chinese submarines deployed from Hainan and elsewhere would look to counter hostile surface ships and provide a sea-based nuclear deterrent in support of their maritime security objectives.
China’s A2/AD vs the US concept of operations
Traditional force comparison indicates that China will soon outnumber the US in the South China Sea. However, with the US Navy migrating to the new DMO concept, the numerical advantage China may soon enjoy could potentially be nullified. Furthermore, superior tactics and network-centric warfare capabilities give the US a tremendous advantage over China. A robust network of bases in the region assures sustained logistics support for prolonged operations by American ships – something China currently lacks.
A formidable weapon in the Chinese armoury is the DF- 26 with a range of 2500 miles. Although these missiles may be effective against fixed shore targets, their accuracy against a warship at sea is doubtful. In contrast to proven anti-ship missiles which are the sea skimmers, the trajectory of ballistic missiles in the terminal stage means their accuracy is debatable. Ballistic missiles using active radar guidance in a terminal phase and can be jammed by a warship’s electronic countermeasures. This combined with smaller formations deployed by the US Navy means that the probability of these missiles hitting a target at sea is relatively low.
In so far as the strategic capability is compared, US forces have a tremendous advantage over China in regards to air and expeditionary force capability. B2 stealth bombers operating from Andersen Airforce Base at Guam can cover the entire South China Sea and would be a significant game-changer if ever ordered to strike China directly.
Comparison of forces and the concept of operations have been briefly covered in the above paragraphs. Although a direct conflict between the US and China in these waters is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, certain inferences can be drawn in the event of a standoff.
China’s hegemonic intent has isolated them diplomatically from many countries in the region except for Cambodia and Laos. The Philippines and Malaysia could fall under the category of swing states. The policy of alienating neighbours would severely affect them in the event of hostilities with the US
Although China would have superiority in the number of maritime assets, superior doctrines/tactics and the time tested organizational structure of US forces would prevail.
A2/AD strategy may look good theoretically; however, the US concept of operations could effectively counter.
Strategic capabilities of US airpower based out of Guam would be a significant game-changer in its favour.
The network of US bases well located geographically across the South China Sea would ensure logistical support to units operating in the region.
Firm resolve by countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia would add exponentially to the US war effort.
Chinese energy flow by tankers through Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits could easily be intercepted by the US and its allies.
Contrary to the view of many experts, the author is of the opinion that China is still an emerging power unlike the US, which has stood the test of time as a superpower since 1945. The biggest advantage for US forces is their combat experience in theatres across the globe. China is aware of its limitations and will continue to focus on grey-zone warfare to achieve national objectives in a way that falls short of physical conflict. This strategy seeks to ensure they avoid episodes of any great magnitude meaning the prospect of a full-fledged war is unlikely in the region. However, the chances of an isolated incident sparking off a local skirmish cannot be ruled out though, in all probability, conflict prevention measures would likely deescalate a situation such as this and prevent any spiral toward war.
(Commodore V Venugopal IN (Retd) enjoyed a 30-year career with the Indian Navy during which time he held various appointments including commands at sea. He is an alumni of DKI Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, College of Naval Warfare, Mumbai and Defense Services Staff College, Wellington and Member, C3S. His areas of interests include maritime security in Indian Ocean & Indo-Pacific Region, Maritime piracy and Counter terrorism. The views expressed are personal.)