Coercive orbit: Chinese maritime build-up in South-East Asia

China’s assertive rise in the first decade of the twenty-first century has been unequivocal in its economic and strategic rise. As China’s economic growth burgeoned, its resources sourcing outreach increased in dramatic dimensions. China is seized with three dimensions of a ‘strategic dilemma’ that has resulted in its aggressive overdrive. Its zest for a power rise is based on the perception that it should aggressively monopolise natural and mineral resources that would fuel its rapid economic and strategic growth; should it contend with opposition to this stride, Beijing either buys out the sources of supplies or elbows her peer competitors aggressively dominating the sources and markets. This syndrome is akin to the ‘Bismarckian Germany’ of the aggressive economic and strategic overdrive it pursued.

China perceives that it has to reduce the long routes of vulnerability by establishing robust access and forward basing of its forces and counter responses that would negate any adversarial intent.

Known as the ‘Malacca Dilemma’, China exhibits the anxiety to establish enduring regional bilateral alliances and has often supported major civil and military infrastructure projects as well as immensely aided in their military modernization programs.

China is reinforcing its security of sea lines of communication with enduring partnerships that enhances its regional domain and power appeal. The third dimension of China’s strategic rise and its assertiveness lies in the opportunities of the ‘power shift’ that it perceives in the Asia-Pacific of the perceptible waning of the US power on one hand and its own assiduous rise that enables it to be perched as the ‘epicentre’ of the region.

In other words, Beijing perceives that after several centuries it is in a position to capture the ‘Middle Kingdom’ complex. However, whether this moment of the Middle Kingdom is won by peaceful rise or a contentious rise would be evident of how Beijing negotiates its power rise with South-East Asia and East Asia.

China’s naval and air build up in Southeast Asia has been in steady increase since 2001. In the much-publicized US EP-3 US, surveillance aircraft mission over Hainan Island in April 2001. It was a disastrous encounter by a PLAAF F-8 jet interceptor to force the aircraft to ground that resulted in the crashing of the PLAAF jet and with considerable damage, the EP-3 landed in Lingshui Air base in Hainan Island.

While the EP-3s have been on routine air surveillance, the intensity of the incident revealed Beijing’s nervousness concerning the extensive naval and air infrastructure build-up in the island with the developments that have been made in the Sanya Naval facility.

The decade long build up of China’s naval and air power had transformed the Hainan Island as China’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ that projects into the South China sea radiating lethal power deployments from surface, sub-surface and air assets. Since 2003, the PLA-Navy has emerged as the senior service of the PLA and its impressive growth has been in terms of platform additions and fleet expansions. This service transformation has been critical to Beijing’s naval belligerence in the region.

China’s touted power rise is the pursuit of military modernization that has witnessed an impressive process of platform addition coming from the whole scale purchases of Russian naval and air equipment in large numbers and their collaborative manufacture in China.

Operational transformation

It resulted in a quantum leap of a newer generation of military hardware that China did to replace the huge line up of obsolescent weaponry of ex-Soviet vintage of the 1950s. As a result, the PLA Order of Battle had an imitation of the Soviet/Russian military hardware and doctrinal emphasis.

Since 1990, the PLA Navy added 8 classes of guided missile destroyers of 26 vessels, two being ex-Russian Sovremenny (Project 956EM, 956) and the rest were indigenously built. In terms of guided missile frigates, the PLAN added 49 vessels of varied classes and capabilities of 9 different classes.

It added 12 classes of amphibious warfare ships of 27 large landing ships and 31 medium landing craft 4 classes of conventional submarines of indigenous design and buildup and the ex-Russian EKM-656, 877 class totaling 58 submarines.

The PLA-N boasts the largest conventional submarine fleets in the region, in its ORBAT are two classes of nuclear propelled submarines of the fleet attack and fleet ballistic missile submarines.

It has over 200 dedicated naval aviation aircraft force of the PLANAF constituting the force structure. Besides these are the Chinese naval missile force structure diversified with land attack cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles of varied classes of indigenous and Russian origin constitute the architecture of an imposing platforms capabilities that by sheer size and lethal power could overwhelm regional naval and air forces.

However, the single significant platform development in 2011 has been the Chinese push for the aircraft carrier buildup that would tasked with the destroyer-frigate and submarine force.

Operational transformation is the second emphasis of the emerging PLA naval and air order of battle. In tune with the articulated maritime strategy of its three-island chain strategy of maritime envelope, China would be fielding a potent naval-air force with strong accents on the offensive within the first and partially into the second island chains.

China’s operational transformation is evident in the combination of developing critical synergies in the anti-access and area denial measures of antiship ballistic missiles that China has touted to be the “killer weapon” of the US carrier task forces.

With an advertised range of 1500 to 2000 km, the CSS-5/DF-21D anti ship ballistic missile could keep the US carrier strike and amphibious /expeditionary forces long away from the Chinese first island chain of naval zone of operations.

The synergies of Chinese maritime missilery (surface to air, surface to surface and anti-ship and land attack cruise missile) works closely with its submarine warfare operations giving Beijing a genuine and credible capability within its first island chain and with considerable capability into its second island chain. The deployment of the CSS-5/DF-21D would give a huge edge in preemptive and coercive options in a regional crisis.

Joint warfare innovation is yet another potent dimension of its operational transformation is the evolving Chinese capabilities of integrating their shore-sea-space capabilities through net centric warfare capabilities and Chinese conceived ‘Informationalization’ capabilities providing the tactical and strategic design and robustness to their operational transformation.

New strategic capabilities have been evident in the development and deployment of the second strike capability of the fleet ballistic missile submarines Type 094 Jin class boats featuring the JL-2 SLBMs and the variety of nuclear tipped land attack cruise missiles on board the Type 093 Shang class.

The Chinese family of nuclear tipped land attack cruise missiles pose a credible theatre nuclear threat. The Sanya naval facility’s boasts the fleet attack submarines whose operational prowess and lethal offensive punch could decapitate any combination of regional naval forces unless the US nuclear submarine forces intervenes in a local conflict against the PLA-N.
Balance of capabilities

Pitted against an assertive power rise of China whose determinism to elbow its way in the South China Sea disputes and a determined PLA-Navy and PLA Air force, the regional naval and air forces of South-East Asia face a colossal challenge.

Beijing would be cautious in the use of force and deployment of its superior assets, in view of the catalytic effect that would bring US response into play. China would use the dual effect of its charm offensive of its ‘peaceful rise’, its economic attraction, the indispensability of economic interdependence of the ASEAN with China - all under the aegis of regional economic interdependence networks of the EAS and APEC to engage ASEAN collectively.

However, Beijing would single out bilateral issues to dispute with the individual members of the ASEAN. China would also employ a host of instruments like its domestic law and its interpretation of the UNCLOS with an expansive scope that would marginalize the individual claims of the Southeast Asian countries.

A comparative assessment of the Orders of Battles, operational capabilities and doctrinal evolution of the Southeast Asian countries and China exposes huge deficits on the part of South-East Asia.

While Southeast Asia has a robust economic and political regional framework, a collective defence framework of Southeast Asia has faded since the eclipse of SEATO.

While the United States is generally committed to the security of Southeast Asia based on an economic interdependence premise, the operationalization of a collective defence pact with the US and other extra-regional powers have not yet shaped in the region. In other words, the assertive Chinese power rise is actually triggering the regional debate for an Asian NATO.

However, this trend is not likely to evolve, as the economic interdependence argument is stronger. Nevertheless, the United States has stepped its regional footprint in economic and strategic scope. The United States has increased its military interoperability with South-East Asian militaries and it has staked its involvement in the South China Sea dispute.

The deficits in the balance of capabilities are quite evident. In terms of the platforms and numbers, Southeast Asia has a diversified architecture of naval and air forces.

The level of operational performance, combat endurance, doctrinal relevance for a enduring combat operations, hardware synchronisation and the strategic-technological base to sustain a competitive rivalry with China is present with countries like Vietnam, whose credible reputation was one to ‘teach China a lesson in 1979’ when China had gone to teach Vietnam one.

Singapore is yet another example of the high levels of strategic-technological dexterity and enjoys strong niches in joint warfare doctrine, network centric operations and the technological capability to wage a high-end combat.

Malaysia features an impressive order of battle but with very little combat and operational experience for its armed forces except in relation to its bilateral conflict with Indonesia. Indonesia features a large armed forces base but obsolescence-ridden equipment. Philippines feature a very modest military capability that cannot take on China even in defensive operations.

In 2010 (March-July), the PLA-N conducted one of the largest joint warfare exercises-the largest of its kind and involved dramatic live missile firing exercises in the South-East Asian region.

Directed against each of the key contender in the dispute, these exercises have candidly underlined Beijing’s assertive intent projecting a combination soft and hard measures of its determined reiteration of its claim of the South China Sea.

This joint warfare exercise has been the defining benchmark of the increasing Chinese abrasiveness against Southeast Asia, while simultaneously it talks of economic interdependence with ASEAN.


China’s burgeoning military arsenal and the increase in capabilities impact on the region in ways that complicates regional security. China is pursuing a diplomatic and a military compellance strategy that involves in hyping its appeal of the peaceful rise, preferring consultations as expediency matters, but simultaneously has been engaging aggressive naval manoeuvres, hydrographic missions that dent the 2002 Code of Conduct.

In the collective diplomatic forums, China has always exhibited cordial consultations, but engaged in selective conflict escalation with regard to Vietnam and Philippines.

China’s deployment of the CSS-5/DF-21D and the increasing capabilities in joint warfare, network centric warfare and the growing strategic arsenal sends an unequivocal message to the United States that China is moving to an offensive - defense posture with regard to interventions in the region.

If the anti-access area denial operational posture is proven credible; with the host of Chinese family of antiship cruise missiles and the anti-ship ballistic missiles, then the credibility of US naval and air power support to Southeast Asia and East Asia would have considerably eroded.

The increasing pace of Chinese naval and air modernization, the new operational synergies of informationization and the lethality of the Chinese nuclear tipped cruise missiles pose credible threats by which China would apply strategic compellance to extract desired outcomes in the South China Sea dispute.

It requires that Southeast Asia envision greater strategic cooperation and building of hardware assets and interoperability that would serve as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. The Chinese ability to test the US intervention defending the regional security interest is the critical game-changer that casts China as a ‘dissatisfied’ power bent on asserting its hegemony albeit by its own hype of ‘peaceful rise’ with Chinese characteristics.