New Delhi [India], Nov 12 (ANI): China likes to assure neighbours and the rest of the world that it will never interfere with civilian freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. However, that hard-to-believe stance has been shown to be totally duplicitous as China’s naval and paramilitary forces stamp their authority over international waters and passageways.
This became most apparent on 30 October when a Chinese warship accosted the oil tanker Green Aura as it sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The Greek-owned tanker, flying a Liberian flag, was voyaging from Thailand to China when it was interdicted.
Scarborough Shoal lies within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, but that has not stopped China from laying claim to the feature since mid-2012 when it seized de facto ownership and refused to let others, including Filipino fishermen, near it. When the tanker came within 12nm of the shoal, it received a radio call from China Coast Guard (CCG) and naval ships hove to near the reef.
One of these ships described itself as a “naval warship” but it could not be identified as its automatic identification system was turned off, according to Green Aura’s Filipino captain Manolo Ebora. In an interplay of directives, one ship eventually stated, “This is China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. You should keep away from this area.”Although the tanker was making the innocent passage, a couple of Chinese vessels moved to effect a collision course and to tail the ship, causing it to eventually veer away.
The Chinese military has also been playing hardball with the Philippine military too. Major General Reuben Basiao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines deputy chief of staff for intelligence, told lawmakers at a security briefing in early November that China had fired flares at Philippine Air Forceaircraft flying near Chinese-controlled reefs on six occasions in February.
Basiao commented, “China has been deploying its assets to hinder Filipino operations – both patrols and rotation and re-provision missions – in the West Philippine Sea.” He added that China was “the most aggressive” of any of the claimants in the territorial area. Nations that contest China’s carte blanche claims to much of the South China Sea are: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Philippine Navy has also observed a total of 17 Chinese research vessels operating in eastern Philippine waters in the first half of 2019. Furthermore, in July the Philippines complained that Chinese warships were passing through Philippine waters unannounced. This reflects blatant Chinese double standards, where Beijing feels it can behave in this manner when passing by other countries, but refusing even civilian vessels from doing the same.
Despite China’s bullying behavior towards the Philippines, its leader President Rodrigo Duterte continues to act as a lapdog of Beijing. It seems that no insult or any theft of Philippine territory can elicit a rebuke from Duterte, who feels overwhelmed by Chinese superiority.
China built up seven reefs in the South China Sea within its legally void Nine-Dash Line claim, turning them into island bastions. Such is the outrageous nature of this territorial claim that both Malaysia and Vietnam banned the new Pearl Studio and DreamWorks animated movie Abominable because one scene depicts this Chinese-concocted map.
It is not just the undersea resources China is interested inwithin the South China Sea – estimated at 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – but also strategic maneuver space and national pride.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) keeps a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines at a base on Hainan Island, at the northern end of the sea. China’s military covets the ability to unobtrusively transit these submarines without foreign vessels snooping around, plus the PLA is seeking to create a buffer zone to keep US and other naval platforms at arm’s distance from the Chinese coastline. When seen through this lens, Beijing’s efforts to carve out sovereign territory there make sense, despite their illegality.On 4 November the US State Department issued a document entitled A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision. It voiced concerns: “In the South China Sea, we urge all claimants, including the PRC, to resolve disputes peacefully, without coercion, and in accordance with international law. PRC maritime claims in the South China Sea, exemplified by the preposterous ‘nine-dash line’, are unfounded, unlawful and unreasonable. These claims, which are without legal, historic or geographic merit, impose real costs on other countries. Through repeated provocative actions to assert the nine-dash line, Beijing is inhibiting ASEAN members from accessing over $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves, while contributing to instability and the risk of conflict.”The USA maintains 375,000 troops and civilian personnel in the Indo-Pacific region, making it one of the largest military forces in the area. However, this size cannot even begin to compare with the 2 million personnel of the PLA.
Interestingly, the PLAN already eclipses the US Navy (USN)in terms of ship numbers too, although it must be said that hull quantity is not the same as naval capability. James Fanell, the former director of intelligence and information operations for the USN’s Pacific Fleet, warned in 2018, “The future size of the navy will be about 550 warships and submarines by 2030. That is twice the size of today’s US Navy.”Certainly, the PLAN has been prioritized in terms of funding and equipment.
Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, told ANI: “Chinese naval development enjoys top-level support, starting with Xi himself. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure. It has the world’s second-largest economy and defense budget. It has parlayed all these advantages into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup.”The aforementioned China Coast Guard (CCG) used to be a civilian agency, but it was placed under the military hierarchy in March 2018. Also at Beijing’s disposal, and often its preferred means of achieving success, is the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). China employs the PAFMM in ambiguous, low-intensity operations where it does not want to risk escalation by using gray warships. Although largely made up of marine industry workers and utilizing large fishing boat fleets, the state-organized, state-developed and state-controlled PAFMM operates directly under the military’schain of command too.
Erickson noted: “Each of China’s three sea forces is the world’s largest by number of ships.” That equates to a powerful set of tools at the PLA’s disposal to achieve all kinds of at-sea victories. It also helps fulfil the aspiration of China’s 2015 Defense White Paper that stated “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”.
The American academic further remarked that the PLAN “increasingly coordinates training and operations” with these two paramilitary forces, something that is adding strength, depth and presence. This seems to be precisely what happened in the confrontation with Green Aura near Scarborough Shoal.
Erickson also addressed the qualitative improvements apparent in Chinese warships that are being churned out of shipyards at an alarming pace like dumplings. “Today, China’s really ‘getting its ships together’, if you will. Its navy is improving both quantitatively and qualitatively. To meet more missions with greater capabilities, PLAN vessels keep growing larger and more sophisticated. They increasingly resemble (and, in many ways, approach the performance parameters of) their US and allied counterparts. And they’re armed to the teeth, particularly with anti-ship cruise missiles.”Indeed, the PLAN showed YJ-18 and YJ-18A anti-ship missiles during the spectacular parade in Beijing on 1 October. Chinese media say the YJ-18 is a ship-launched variant (e.g. from a vertical launch system on Type 052D and Type 055 destroyers), while the YJ-18A is used from nuclear-powered attack submarines. The YJ-18A is reportedly the first Chinese submarine-launched missile that ignites underwater, with the benefit that it can be launched more deeply from beneath the surface.
Growth is spectacular. In 2000, less than 10% of China’s surface warship fleet was modern, but by 2020 this percentage will have reached 85% for both destroyers and frigates. The PLAN’s second aircraft carrier (and the first built domestically) is expected to commission very soon, and a third carrier is already well under construction.
As for submarines, the Pentagon assessed that “modernization of China’s submarine force remains a high priority for the PLAN”. The US military noted the submarine “will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020”.
Apart from the PLAN’s spectacular growth in capability, Erickson also discerned some relative weaknesses. “China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface warships and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. With aircraft carriers, it is still in the ‘crawling’ stage of a ‘crawl-walk-run’ approach.The professor added: “This all limits China’s ability to project top-caliber naval power beyond maritime East Asia into the ‘far seas’. But regarding the Yellow, East and South China Seas (as well as their immediate approaches), Chinese naval shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific.”Erickson warned: “China’s navy – and land-based ‘anti-navy’of aircraft and missiles – already pose a credible threat to US and allied forces were they to become involved in a regional conflict concerning China. Of course, even if a US president decided not to authorize a devastating attack on mainland China, US and allied forces are capable of destroying much of China’s navy at sea.”However, the USA is struggling to convince allies in Asia-Pacific that it is a reliable partner, which can counter China’s growing belligerence and bullying of smaller nations, as evident in the recently concluded ASEAN summit.
At a time when Washington could have cornered Beijing over its incursions in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone at the ASEAN summit, it decided to sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his rather green National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. The contest was over before it began, with Beijing managing to suppress potential criticism on its actions in the South China Sea. (ANI)