National Security

China’s Increasing Presence in Maritime Environments – A Game Changer

By Rene Sotolongo:

China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea is a growing concern. China has built massive man-made islands to act as military staging areas. Just weeks ago on December 24th, 2016, we learned that China is putting missiles on these islands.

In fact, in a report published in mid-December, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reports that anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attacks have been placed on all seven of China’s newly created islands.

Just a few weeks ago, on December 17th, China carried out its first ever live-fire drills using an aircraft carrier and fighters in the northeastern Bohai Sea.  The Bohai Sea (or Bo Sea) lies on the northeastern coast of North China. Due to its close proximity to Beijing, the Bo Sea is one of the busiest seaways in the entire world.

While no other country has claims in China’s busy waterway of the Bohai Sea, these drills come at a time rife with tension and only serve to highlight China’s commitment to strengthening its maritime presence.

These military outposts were built only recently amid objections by the US and rival claimants. The Chinese military piled sand on top of coral reefs to make the islands, and then constructed military-grade 3,000-meter (10,000-foot) airstrips, barracks, lighthouses, radar stations and other infrastructure.

Why did Obama do nothing about this?

We easily could have used long standing international law regarding Freedom of Navigation to at least blockade these islands as “hazards to navigation.” This right is now also codified as article 87(1)a of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It wouldn’t have gone against national policy for Obama to challenge China’s right to build these islands. The United States Freedom of Navigation (FON) program challenges territorial claims on the world’s oceans and airspace. The fundamental position of the United States is that all nations must obey the international law of the sea, as codified.

The U.S. Department of State writes:

U.S. policy since 1983 provides that the United States will exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention. The United States will not, however, acquiesce in unilateral acts of other states designed to restrict the rights and freedoms of the international community in navigation and overflight and other related high seas uses. The FON Program since 1979 has highlighted the navigation provisions of the LOS Convention to further the recognition of the vital national need to protect maritime rights throughout the world.

Beginning in October 2015, as part of the U.S. FON Operations (FONOP) program, U.S. Navy ships have patrolled near the artificial islands China has created in the South China Sea, but that is all we have done.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of reclaimed-land islands (the so-called “Great Wall of Sand”) in October 2015.  Two other U.S. ships have followed:  the USS Wilber Curtis sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands in January 2016, and the USS William P. Lawrence came within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in May 2016.

Currently China has ten military vessels, including the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier and over 10 aircraft engaged in air-to-air, air-to-sea and sea-to-air combat drills.  This was the first time an aircraft carrier squadron has performed drills with live ammunition and real troops.

While China’s aircraft carrier program is a state secret, just last December the Defense Ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier to go with the existing vessel.  And the Pentagon reports Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.

In short, China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what military experts believe will be the deployment of multiple domestically built carriers by 2020. And this is (or at least should be) a matter of grave concern for the US.

Ever since the end of World War II, the United States Navy’s carrier strike groups have been the dominant force in the world’s oceans, and are the number one asset for force projection. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was incapable of matching our mastery of carrier operations.

That however does not seem to dissuade China. There is a serious and concerted effort by China to challenge US dominance.

Traditionally the Soviets main defense to US carrier battle groups was a strategy of denial.  This means they simply denied access to certain areas by using a combination of bombers, submarines and surface combatants equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles. This appears to be the current strategy of China… but it is NOT their long term position.

China’s current strategy of denial is simply a short-term strategy while they develop the capability to directly challenge US carrier groups.

But I thought China’s naval capabilities were far behind those of the US?

There are some who do not believe the Liaoning is actually a threat to the United States. According to its 2015 report on Chinese military power, the Pentagon states that the Liaoning and its air wing “as currently configured” are not capable of projecting force over great distances.

“The Liaoning will not enable long-range power projection similar to U.S. Nimitz-class carriers… Liaoning’s smaller size limits the number of aircraft it can embark, while the ski-jump configuration limits restricts fuel and ordnance load.”

I believe they are missing the point. China has quite literally picked up where the Soviets left off. They took the decaying hull of the Varyag, refurbished and rebuilt her, and commissioned her as the Liaoning. Why? Simple.

They have to start somewhere and this appears to be the “training” vessel that will allow them to begin the task of becoming competent in carrier air wing operations.

Pundits are out in full force stating that even in a “best case” scenario, that it will take the People’s Republic of China “quite some time” to field a fleet that is capable of challenging the U.S. Navy.

It took us decades to master this skill, but with the Chinese being masters of appropriation and improvement, they can simply watch us and adapt accordingly. We have done all the hard work for them. They are also masters of corporate espionage, so they could (with directed effort) easily steal the knowledge they need, like how to build steam catapults.  Or they could just get it from the Russians. The Russian air craft carrier Ulyanovsk (the successor to the Kuznetsov) incorporates steam catapults. It may have taken the US decades to get there, but that doesn’t mean we should rest easy believing it will take the Chinese the same amount of time.

Additionally, China’s J-15 air superiority fighter is a better performing aircraft (in terms of aerodynamics) than the US Navy’s F/A – 18 E/F Super hornet. So one can infer that any new Carrier China acquires will be designed to use the J-15’s full capabilities.

Those who claim that it will take years for China to catch up to US capabilities are also missing a critical point. It’s clear that Russia and China are forming incredibly close partnerships. So much so, that major intelligence analysts are stating that China and Russia could be forming the world’s new superpower axis.

Couple China’s manpower and financial resources with Russia’s experience and capability of building air craft carriers and you have a problem.

So you have the buildout of military islands in the South China Sea, a live fire exercise of their air craft carrier battle group, and the partnership with Russia. Individually, they may-or-may not be a cause for concern. But taken together, this represents a major threat—an absolute game changer and a shift in the current geo-political landscape.

What we are seeing is that China is getting directly involved in carrier based naval aviation. It also clearly shows that they have the finances, the work force and the industrial base to field a modern carrier fleet that will be at least on par with the United States Navy.

Is this going to happen tomorrow? No. But the Chinese always, and I mean always, take a “long-view” approach to their strategic planning. Once the Chinese train a sufficient number of personnel and develop their doctrine, then you will see a quick and determined effort to building a modern fleet of carriers. It’s only a matter of time.

Rene C. Sotolongo is an OpsLens Contributor and a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer who served for over twenty years as an Information Systems official. Sotolongo also specialized in homeland security and counterterrorism.

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