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Chinese South China Sea Military Options

As part of its "peaceful rise," China ostensibly hopes to improve relations with other Pacific nations. Japan and Taiwan are among China's top trade partners, and the Chinese probably would not attack these neighbors. But the evidence suggests that China's leaders regard force as an especially blunt (and potentially quite effective) instrument of statecraft.

Though convenient for power projection when it comes to intimidating Taiwan, it is difficult to achieve a hegemonic regional presence in the South China seas traditionally treated by the Chinese as their own backdoor lake. China’s navy however is familiarizing itself with the region’s water through more visits, perhaps the greatest efforts to do so since the Ming dynasty’s Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) journeys and the sailing of Qing Beiyang Fleet to Japan in the later half of the 19th century.

China has been deterred from taking military action in the South China Sea on two levels. Until recently, China did not possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the islands, particularly when confronted with outside intervention. Beijing is also deterred by the potential political and economic repercussions of any use of force in the South China Sea.

The PLA’s prospects would hinge on establishing persistent air superiority over the South China Sea, the availability of amphibious and air lift, attrition rates, interoperability of PLA forces, the ability of China’s logistics system to support the necessarily high tempo of operations, the will and ability of other South China Sea states to resist, and the speed and scale of international intervention, if any.

The Chinese hold substantial drills every year as capacity-building experiments, if it became necessary to use force to settle a dispute. However, the Kuayue-2009 (Stride-2009) exercises indicated a major transformation in the pattern. For the first time, these were not directed at rehearsing an amphibious assault on Taiwan, but instead centered on the South China Sea. The Kuayue '09 exercises are very much part of Beijing's new emphasis on delivering military force at long range on short notice.

China is strengthening its ability to conduct military operations along its periphery on its own terms. It is building and fielding sophisticated weapon systems and testing new doctrines that it believes will allow it to prevail in regional conflicts and also counter traditional US military advantages. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is building its own sophisticated aircraft, surface combatants, submarines and weapon systems while still buying others overseas. China is looking beyond a potential Taiwan contingency and is pursuing capabilities needed to become a major regional power. Although China may not achieve a true regional power-projection capability in the next decade, it most likely will increase maritime patrols of disputed oil fields and its Exclusive Economic Zone.

While the PLA Navy may not be able to justify force modernization in response to a Taiwan contingency, planning for a South China Sea contingency have evidently been given high priority. The first unit of the new Type 071 Yuzhao class of landing ships dock, commissioned in 2007, would have no application to Taiwan, but would be essential in an island-hopping South China Sea operation. Of equal but generally unappreciated significance, the Type 920 Anwei-class Hospital Ship, launched in August 2007, would not seem necessary equipment in an amphibious invasion to Taiwan, since the island is so close to the mainland. However, for operations in the more distant waters of the South China Sea, it would be essential.

China maintains an active presence in the South and East China Seas. Chinese operations in the South China Sea (covering areas such as the Spratly and Paracel islands) include reconnaissance patrols, training and island defense, air defense and service support exercises. China also has conducted operations in the East China Sea area, including patrols to protect its maritime interests and claimed oil and gas resources.

It is important to remember that the Spratly Islands are claimed by five different countries: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Under different laws and historical precedents, each party has a basis for its claim. The first three states claim the Spratlys in their entirety, while Malaysia and the Philippines only claim parts.

Therefore, China could seize certain islands in the chain without attacking the claimed territory of the Philippines or Malaysia, though any such move would be provocative to all parties anyway since it would reveal China's willingness to settle the long-running territorial dispute through force. The "Am I next?" line of thinking would appear and might unite the other parties against China, though probably just on the diplomatic front since the states will understand that even a combined naval war with China over the Spratlys would probably be a losing battle that wouldn't be worth it.

Yet it remains possible that China might attempt to design an attack so as to divide the other Spratly claimants. The Philippines, for example, only claims about half the islands in the Spratlys and only occupies eight of those, and Malaysia only claims about ten, all of which are located relatively near its shores. China could take over some of the northern Spratly Islands from Vietnam and Taiwan (which actually only has troops on one island, yet that island is the biggest of all) without legally involving anyone else. The aforementioned islands are also contiguous and closest to the Chinese mainland. However, annexation of the core Spratlys would require taking over islands claimed by the Philippines.

All parties have some soldiers stationed on their respectively claimed islands, which means that any Chinese takeover of some or all of the Spratlys will necessarily involve small numbers of ground amphibious forces to raid the islands, capture or kill the enemy troops, and then occupy the land to establish a basis for a territorial claim and to prevent enemy soldiers from returning. As of late 2003, infantry contingents from the different claimant countries were present on about 45 of the islands (450 Chinese troops, 70-90 Malaysians, 100 Filipinos, 100 Taiwanese, and 1,500 Vietnamese).

For a Spratly Islands invasion, the Chinese would use Marines or Army forces that have been trained for amphibious warfare against Taiwan. Considering the small size of the defending garrisons and the unsuitability of the islands and their fortifications for serious defense, the Chinese military is definitely of adequate size and competence to overrun the islands without serious problems. The big question is whether China has the military experience to coordinate such an operation hundreds of miles from its shores.

China has no interest in sparking an all-out war over the Spratlys with any of the other South China Sea states: China would benefit most from a short, relatively bloodless conquest of the Spratlys after which relations normalized. China would therefore avoid attacking targets within the enemy nations (such as warships, warplanes and bases) as much as possible, even if these assets could be used against Chinese forces in the Spratlys. Direct attacks against enemy territory would raise the stakes in the conflict and make China pay a higher price for the islands, both immediately and in the form of longer-term damage to international relations.

China would only expand the war to enemy territory if faced with an unexpectedly determined opponent. China's approach in this regard will be especially careful if attempting to wrest control of the islands currently occupied by Taiwan or the Philippines since both have mutual defense treaties with the U.S. While the terms of said treaties are ambiguously applied to a potential Spratly Islands war, they are far less so under the condition of direct Chinese attacks on the territory of the two Asian signatories.

A Chinese invasion of the Spratlys is much more likely if the former is first engaged in a larger, unrelated military conflict with one of the other South China Sea states. In such a context, China's annexation of the opposing nation's Spratlys would also be seen more as a justifiable act of military necessity or as an understandable punishment of the enemy instead of an act of naked aggression, and the diplomatic costs would be lowered. The odds of such a development would be especially likely if the enemy were using its Spratly Island possessions for military or espionage efforts against China, perhaps for shipping interdiction.

China would move attack submarines and surface ships from its South China Sea fleet into the Spratlys waters to first destroy enemy warships. Long-range fighter/attackers based in Hainan and the Paracel Islands would also be used for the same purpose. These assets would be particularly effective against the primitive Philippine fleet. Extra air, naval, and ground assets would have to be defensively deployed around these same locations as well as the China-Vietnam border to guard against Vietnamese retaliation outside of the Spratlys. This might reduce the available resources for the Spratlys operation and mandate the influx of Chinese assets from other regions.

China's nearest bases to the Spratlys are in the Paracel Islands-another disputed island chain in the South China Sea. China forcibly seized it from South Vietnam in 1974. (Vietnam and Taiwan continue to claim the islands.)

In the Paracel Island group, the Chinese have built a substantial military facility on Woody Island, including an 8,000-foot runway, an artificial enclosed harbor, ammunition storage buildings, and electronic monitoring stations. A port facility also exists on Duncan Island, though it is unclear how extensive it is. The Spratly Islands are located 500-700 miles distant from the Paracels, making the latter China's closest bases to the battle zone. Woody Island's runway is long enough to launch Chinese J-11 (Su-27 and -30) fighter/attackers, which are China's best antiship aircraft. The planes also have enough range to cover the entire Spratly Islands area without aerial refueling. Such planes could even be based in Hainan.

With dozens of islands occupied by enemy forces, the Chinese would not be able to simultaneously attack all at once. Instead, the biggest Spratly islands with the most extensive military facilities (airfields, docks, listening posts) would be attacked first. Even the largest islands in this area are only a couple hundred yards across and have almost no elevation, so any point could be hit by Chinese naval guns.

The Spratly Islands lack natural sources of freshwater, and all of the garrisons depend upon supply shipments. If the garrisons are cut off from their own forces and resupply, are severely damaged by bombardment, and are faced with the prospect of fighting against the region's most powerful military over an objective of questionable value, many of them might surrender quickly.

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Page last modified: 24-11-2014 19:00:33 ZULU