In its 2012 defence budget, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) raised spending by 11.2 percent to $106.4 billion. This figure means Chinese expenditure has doubled since 2006, and is extrapolated to double again by 2015. However, this is merely the official budget, and many believe spending could actually be up to 50 percent higher. In a recent Defence White Paper, Japan highlights intensified activities by Chinese naval forces: “These moves, together with the lack of transparency in its military affairs and security issues, are a matter of concern.” The dragon is indeed sharpening its teeth…and to what end?
by Gordon Arthur
China’s economy is dependent on exports, as well as imports of vital raw materials like minerals and oil. Approximately 90 percent of trade is seaborne and China has historically relied on a Western-led security umbrella to ensure safe passage along these arterial routes …but no longer. Interestingly, the current conflict in Syria reflects China’s position vis-à-vis oil imports and arms exports. Beijing has steadfastly refused to support UN resolutions against Syria so as not to jeopardise its strategic relationship with Iran, its largest Middle East arms market and a major oil supplier.
Taiwan has never departed from the crosshairs of Chinese strategic thinking, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has carefully developed the capacity to ‘liberate’ this ‘renegade province’ by force. For example, some 1,200 DF-11, DF-15 and DF-21 missiles are currently aimed at Taiwan. Fortunately, relations between the Chinese neighbours have warmed since the 2008 election of President Ma Ying-jeou. China is extremely wary of the US and its major presence in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, the US is Taiwan’s solitary ally, as demonstrated via substantial arms packages. In addition, China has long-standing tensions with India, Japan and Vietnam. To deal with these ‘threats’, China maintains a standing force of around 2.255 million personnel.
Perhaps the US provides the best example of how China’s military expansion is being viewed with concern. President Barack Obama announced a “strategic pivot” towards Asia, which will see 60 percent of naval assets assigned to the Pacific and a new Air-Sea Battle Concept. Additionally, the Pentagon’s 2011 ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC’ report to Congress claimed China’s rapid military development was “potentially destabilising to regional military balances.”
The PLA’s expanding reach was seen in its first operational deployment of a naval vessel into the Mediterranean during last year’s evacuation of nationals from Libya. The multinational counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden has also presented China a golden opportunity to establish an Indian Ocean foothold. The first naval escort group departed in December 2008, and task forces have maintained a continual presence there. Commercial ports built by China in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka could offer future support bases for Chinese naval ships plying the Indian Ocean. Pakistan is a vital strategic partner, and the Muslim country is a major client of Chinese arms.
Grabbing international headlines have been numerous territorial confrontations in the South China and East China Seas. Whether they involve Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam, the common denominator in all of them is China. The Philippines had a serious standoff over Scarborough Shoal west of Palawan, while the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have long been a thorn in the side of Sino-Japanese relations.
Several factors are driving these conflicts, the most important being China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims. For example, it claims almost the entire South China Sea, overriding competing bids from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Its latest action in June was to nominate Sansha as the administrative centre for the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In a follow-up move, the Central Military Commission approved a military garrison that “will be responsible for Sansha area national-defence mobilisation and reserve forces activities”. In such territorial disputes, China does not use PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels as this would constitute a public-relations disaster. Instead it employs China Marine Surveillance vessels, part of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). This organisation currently operates 400+ law enforcement vessels, and the director announced in June that 36 new patrol vessels would be built over the next two years.
Other factors in these ‘maritime-territory grabs’ are the preponderance of undersea gas/oil deposits. In May, China announced a platform had begun pumping oil 320km south of Hong Kong. Of 1,380 oil wells in the South China Sea, this was China’s first. Fisheries are another concern. China is the world’s largest seafood consumer, but due to widespread overfishing and pollution, coastal waters cannot sustain the country’s fishing-boat fleets. This causes fishermen to roam further afield to achieve their quotas, and this has led to spiteful clashes in disputed waters.
China is not a traditional maritime power, but this is changing fast as it seeks a blue-water navy. PLAN vessels now make regular forays beyond the so-called first island chain. For example, Japanese patrol aircraft spotted three warships crossing the Osumi Strait in April. A month later, Japan identified a rotary-winged unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operating from the stern of a Chinese frigate.
The PLAN boasts the world’s largest diesel-electric submarine fleet. China presently has some 60 submarines, and the fleet is rapidly modernising. One reason why the South China Sea features so highly in Chinese thinking is that submarines can more quickly access deep-sea trenches there compared to the shallow continental shelf further north. Consequently, a large underground submarine base has been established on Hainan Island. The Type 095 SSN should enter service by 2015, with up to five boats expected. Meanwhile, the diesel-electric Type 041 Yuan class employs air-independent propulsion (AIP).
There seems to be no end to the number and types of advanced warships entering the PLAN. The overall tonnage of new-generation warships such as the Type 052C air defence destroyer and 054A frigate now equals or exceeds that of Japan. China has commenced construction of its sixth 052C and fourteenth 054A vessels. There are reports of a new 10,000-ton Type 052D destroyer in development too. An extensive new class is the Type 056 corvette to patrol coastal waters and enforce territorial claims. A second corvette was launched in June and at least four more are currently under construction. China is also forming a fleet of approximately 80 catamaran-hulled Type 022 fast attack craft. Last year, the first photographic evidence emerged of a linear towed-array sonar system on a Chinese warship.
One of the most anticipated events of 2012 is the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier. The ex-Soviet Varyag had completed ten sea trials up till August. However, a serious challenge is sourcing aircraft arresting wires for the carrier, with only the USA and Russia possessing requisite technologies. This first carrier will be treated as a training vessel even though it possesses a full combat capability. Additionally, China is developing indigenous conventionally powered carrier designs that will no doubt bear a strong resemblance to the Varyag. The first could be afloat by 2014. It is predicted the initial carriers will go to the South Sea Fleet, as signalled by the modern flotillas being built up there. However, China has a very steep learning curve in store as it operates carriers and air wings for the first time.
China is rapidly developing its amphibious-warfare forces, with work concentrating on 18,000-ton Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD), with the fourth in class now being built. Four new Zubr-class hovercraft are under construction and a 22,000-ton future helicopter carrier design known as the Type 081 is set to burst onto the scenes.