Chinese Naval Build-Up – Direct Threat To US Power
by Tom Olago
The South China Sea has become cherished and jealously guarded by China, so much so that she has built a series of artificial islands covering about 3,000 acres to buttress control of the area. This has also been done in an apparently arrogant disregard of applicable UN and international laws.
Not altogether surprising, given that the South China Sea is considered critical to the world’s annual trade via global shipping – worth up to $1.5 trillion according to estimates. The area is also very strategic militarily. Analysts seem to believe that part of the reason for China’s belligerence in the area is to divert attention from its latest local challenges: primarily a weakening economy.
The problem with China’s approach, however, is that valid ownership of that territory is contested – chiefly by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Not much that these countries can do about it on their own, though – their unenviable position is that of a 6-year-old child whose lunch money has been snatched by the overgrown neighborhood bully. Tensions with Japan have also become strained lately, for similar reasons.
Wouldn’t China perhaps be more respectful and cautious of the potential reactive threats posed by the United States? Not necessarily: these artificial islands are said to be similar to hundreds of unsinkable aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and have the potential to shift the balance of power in the region.
The Chinese seem to clearly have the US in their crosshairs. Based on recent reports, the Pentagon has established that a Chinese nuclear submarine designed to carry missiles that can hit the U.S. is likely to deploy before year’s end. The dreaded weapon is the Jin-class nuclear-powered submarine, armed with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
China has not been shy about revealing this capability, apparently as show of strength and for prestige, based on a comment attributed to Larry Wortzel, a member of the congressionally created U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Should the US as a superpower really be worried about all this?
The Chinese seem to think so. According to a comment attributed to PLA Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli: “… the submarine/missile combination is a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified.” Not strange at all, given that the missiles could reportedly reach Alaska if launched from waters near Japan, and all 50 U.S. states if launched from waters east of Hawaii.
Even US military analysts seem to agree. In words attributed to Representative Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s sea power panel: “This milestone in Chinese naval development should remind U.S. policymakers of the need to strengthen American sea power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific”.
These Chinese initiatives have ironically also been accompanied by PLA troop cuts, but there seems to be a consensus that this is just a strategic smokescreen. Its real purpose is designed to re-channel military budgets used to maintain troops, and increase investments into advanced military warfare technology.
It is speculated that these investments may include a new 096 Tang class nuclear-powered submarine able to carry as many as 24 ballistic missiles, twice as many as the Jin-class 094 submarines.
Yet, these latest developments may only be a reflection of the tip of the iceberg. In April this year, media reports highlighted that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) revealed deployment of a new China YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile on warships and submarines that analysts say poses a major threat to U.S. and allied vessels.
China’s then-current naval force of 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and missile-armed patrol craft was also said to be rapidly expanding.
Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College is said to claim that one of the main challenges comes from fishing boats which are manned by civilians, but which may be conducting business on behalf of the Chinese military. The boats arguably “exploit a seam in the law of naval warfare, which protects coastal fishing vessels from capture or attack unless they are integrated into the enemy’s naval force.”
This approach also provides the Chinese navy “with an inexpensive force multiplier, raising operational, legal and political challenges for any opponent.”
Rick Fisher, a Chinese military affairs expert is quoted on the ONI findings: “China is building its naval forces for eventual global power projection….ONI is now suggesting, as others have already, that China could soon be projecting naval power in the same manner as the U.S. Navy…the Washington policy community has not yet started to understand, much less respond to this level of strategic challenge.”
Therein lies the real danger. And by the time the US fully awakens to it, the Chinese threat may well have become insurmountable, and far too late from which to recover from.