Continuing our look at CHINA “behind the scenes”, we look at the military and explore possible motivations for its build-up and its often belligerent actions.
Here in EAST WORLD, even military hardware may not be what it seems. Since Mao’s Long March and then the founding of the People’s Republic, assessing Chinese capabilities has been a continuing difficulty. Underestimating China’s prowess can have grave consequences, as the United States learned the hard way when the Red Chinese Army swarmed south over the Yalu river and pushed our forces practically into the sea at Pusan, South Korea. Another shock early in the Korean War was when our predominantly propeller driven air force was greeted by advanced Mig 15s in the skies overhead. Alternating bellicosity and benign cordiality, statements from the leadership make it difficult to be sure as to what China’s intentions are. Sometimes it even appears the leaders themselves are not clear. Either way and from any point of view, there is always the concern that acting on an assumption is…
China’s first aircraft carrier is a refurbished former Soviet Bloc vessel. Purchased from Ukraine under the guise that it would become a floating casino in Macau, its threat of force projection in such troubled waters as the South China Sea may yet prove to be a dangerous gamble.
China has been annually increasing its spending on military research and development. This expansion of its ability for force projection is particularly evident on the sea. By openly challenging the maritime claims of the bordering nations of the South China Sea’s politically churned waters, China is increasingly intimidating those countries and their chief ally in the region, the United States. These actions would appear to be a big gamble. Its launching of its first aircraft carrier is a case in point.
The Chinese carrier is a refitted used Ukrainian [?]vessel, the Varyag. It was purchased by a Chinese company for $20 million in 1998. The originally stated intent was as a floating casino in Macao, China’s gambling enclave. But not to worry. As a high ranking spokesman said, this new carrier is just for training and familiarization. Pilots need to learn to operate off a carrier and a supporting fleet must be established to utilize such an important asset
China’s expanding ability to project force beyond its borders is driven by several factors, a major one being a deep sense of grievances for what it sees as a long period of humiliation. The launching of its first carrier was heralded as another step in China’s Long march back to what it views as its rightful place as a global major power. “From the Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China suffered more than 470 offenses and invasions that came from the seas,” said the official Chinese newspaper, Xinhua on the occasion of the carrier’s launch. This explicit keeping of a tab of offenses is a source of rising concern that China may intend to settle some scores. The increases in the numbers and complexities of its arsenal do nothing to allay such fears.
Many ask just why is it China appears and often acts so bellicose, especially when the actual inventory of China’s military hardware is compared with that of, for instance the ASEAN countries, plus Japan, South Korea [not ASEAN members?] and that largest of military might, the United States. What is it that China has to gain by projecting such an offensive/defensive posture? Certainly a sense of grievances and humiliation, as discussed earlier, is a factor. It may well be that at the heart of it there is an underlying factor: Fear.
What does China really have to fear? After all, China has the largest land mass, population, uniformed military, and now, having surpassed Japan, the region’s largest economy. The answer is “A lot” when viewed from the inside looking out. A quick look at a map showing the activity of the world’s shipping lanes gives one answer. China depends almost exclusively on these very busy shipping routes to import the energy and raw materials it needs. The, the goods produced go back out over these vast, mostly unprotected waters. One only has to read the now familiar headlines about piracy to see just one aspect of this concern. Lines of communication represent another strategic vulnerability.
In this day and age of the internet, Wi-Fi and cellphones, the public may have the sense that all this data is beaming happily up and down through a nearly invulnerable constellation satellites circling thousands of miles out in space. Not so. The reality is the vast majority of all these bytes of digitized data we have all come to depend on in our daily lives is transported by good old fashioned land and underwater cables. Well, not so old fashioned, in that they are fiber optic cables, able to handle thousands of separate communications on each hair-thin strand. There are over 500,000 miles of fiber optic cable lying on the ocean floor around the world. And much of it gets funneled through the narrow vulnerable accesses of the South China Sea.
And then there are the natural resources under the sea, proven and imagined. There is inherent vulnerability in having such resource gathering facilities, such as oil rigs scattered over the open waters. The other factor and the one driving much of the naval activity at the moment is the argument over just who gets what, particularly in the South China Sa.
Another explanation for the increased incidences involving China on the high seas may be part of that old philosophy; the best defense is offense. Perhaps China uses some of the headline producing maritime actions as a way to intimidate its seafaring neighbors
And perhaps the greatest fear of all, from a military point of view, is the huge technological and capability gap that was exposed as the world’s military looked on with shock and awe at the United States’ capabilities in the 1991 Gulf War. That wake up call, plus a determination to access the growing coffers within the Forbidden City, has perhaps motivate the military to engage in instances of conflict so as to encourage Beijing to allocated more funds for defense. The 17% increase in the 2011 budget is a case in point.
The recent startling public revelation of the new Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20 seems to have caught the military command centers around the world by surprise. “I am intrigued by developments and am quite interested in the quantities and different types of technologies that we didn’t expect…” said Vice Admiral Dorsett, director of naval intelligence. Though the “surprise” is perhaps an understandable laps in obtaining military intelligence due to the very closed nature of the Chinese system, it may be symptomatic of another problem: America’s military and economic distractions in other parts of the globe. Whatever the reasons, the announcement of yet another advancement, an anti-ship (read anti-American aircraft carrier) ballistic missile, capable of mid-ballistic trajectory aiming corrections, means that the U.S. Navy must be beginning to feel the splash from China’s warning shots across the bow.
It is not just breakthrough advances in new concepts that make the PLA, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with. Take the PLAN’s submarines for instance (the Chinese navy and air force are branches of the PLA). Yes, they do have nuclear submarines, five of them at last count, but they are not really the backbone of China’s underwater strategy. It is the century old concept of diesel-electric propulsion, brought to a high degree of refinement that makes them one of the PLAN’s greatest threats.
This new class of diesel-electric boats is not your father’s submarines. Those who’s concepts of diesel-electric boats were formed from WWII movies such as “Run Silent, Run Deep” and the German classic, “Das Boot” may find it hard to grasp the dangers these air-breathing machines pose. First of all, there are at least 35 of them (some estimates reach 80 or more), distributed among the Northern, East, and South Sea Fleets. And then there is the fact that when running on the battery powered electric motors, they are among the very quietest and stealthy of the world’s silent services. Given that their main mission is littoral, near-shore protection, that is not much of a real problem. But an increasing number of them have another trick up their sleeve; one learned from Russian and German innovation.
Battery powered means of course the batteries need recharging. Diesel engines need air to function, necessitating the oft portrayed WWII submarine motoring on the surface, crewmen with binoculars scanning the horizon for threats. But what if a diesel could operate under water, independent of the air above? Enter the Russian AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) advanced diesel-electric Kilo Class submarine. Picture a Killer Whale with a snorkel, and you won’t be far off. It is not the intent of this writing to get too technical, so suffice to say that AIP is a process whereby oxygen is created and recycled while submerged. Over time many countries have worked on the AIP concept, but the Russian Kilo Class has proven to be one of the most successful and the design that appears to have most influenced recent Chinese AIP developments. The Song Class 039A/B entered service in 2004, followed by the more advanced Yuan Class 041 bringing to a total of an estimated six in service. Now, instead of maximum of about 48 hours submerged for a conventional diesel, an AIP powered sub can remain below for a week or more. Other advantages of Air Independent Propulsion over nuclear include lower cost, the potential for adapting older vessels to the newer propulsion, and the ability to keep the submarine smaller than nuclear powered ones, thus reducing cost and making them more maneuverable a stealthy and adaptable to the more confined waters of, say, the South China Sea.
But really, can such submarines really be effective against the combined might of the United States Navy and its allies? Ask the commanders in charge of a 2007 U.S. naval exercise in the ocean between Japan and Taiwan. As reported in the British Daily Mail, “American military chiefs have been left dumbstruck by an undetected Chinese submarine popping up at the heart of a recent Pacific exercise and close to the vast U.S.S. Kitty Hawk – a 1,000ft super carrier with 4,500 personnel on board.”All this in spite of protective shield of escort vessels, aircraft and two nuclear submarines. As was mentioned, these Song Class submarines are very difficult to detect when running on just its electric motors. As the editor of the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships noted, “It was certainly a wake-up call for the Americans.
“It would tie in with what we see the Chinese trying to do, which appears to be to deter the Americans from interfering or operating in their backyard, particularly in relation to Taiwan.” And, it might be added within the entire region China has now declared as its own core national interest, the South China Sea.
In December of 2008, pirates were surprised to see elements of China’s Southern Fleet operating off the coast of Somalia. They weren’t the only ones to take notice. The PLA-N guided missile destroyer DDG -169 Wuhan arrived with a UN mandate, 16 anti-ship and 48 surface-to-air missiles on board as well as a special forces assault team and two support ships. It was a clear signal; some might call it a shot across the bow, to the nations of the world that China intended to operate as a blue water navy. It was not lost on naval historians that it was on these very same waters that Admiral Zhueng He sailed the last Chinese military fleet in the 15th century.
The world had not seen much of the Chinese navy until recently, but that is changing very quickly. China now makes visits with its impressive missile destroyers on courtesy visits at many ports around the world. They seem particularly interested in impressing their neighbors who surround the South China Sea. Recently, in what was perhaps just an innocent coincidence of timing, there occurred in Brunei an event that could be viewed as an illustration of the current situation in South East Asia. The Brunei Times newspaper ran a pleasant little article quoting the departing American attaché. He expressed his family’s regrets upon the leaving of the nice people he they had met there in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. Overshadowing that news was a large photograph and headlines, welcoming the guided missile destroyer Guangzhou that had just arrived at Maura Port. Striding down the guided missile destroyer’s gangway was none other than the Chief of Staff of China’s South Sea Fleet, Senior Colonel Zhang Wendan. If you ever wanted a boat to impress your neighbors, the Guangzhou is the one to do it. This 5,850 ton stealth technology hull destroyer uses conventional diesel power for normal cruise speed, but can kick into direct jet turbo shaft drive when she really wants her top speed of 30 knots. As a multirole ship, the Ghuangzhou, and her sister ship, Wuhan bristles with 16 YJ-83 anti-ship and 48 SA-N-12 Grizzly surface to air missiles. Then there are the 8 HN-2 land attack cruise missiles, 6 torpedo tubes, 2 anti-submarine mortars, a dual-purpose deck gun and two radar controlled Gatling guns that can pump out 5800 rounds per minute. Clearly America was greatly overshadowed by this event.
All this advancement in military hardware has been the direct result of intense long term planning and determination. In march of 2011, the head of the Chinese Communist Party and Chair of the Central Military Committee, Hu Jintao, admonished the PLA to “enhance the sense of opportunity, sense of urgency, and sense of historic mission. … Speed up military preparedness, resolutely safeguard the nation’s sovereignty, security, and interests, and resolutely safeguard the current important period of strategic opportunity for China’s development.” This and other comments seem to come from the recognition that the United States is preoccupied elsewhere and its military expenditures are being curtailed. This at a time of significant economic growth in China as well as the ever increasing importation of scientific and military technology. It should also be noted that President Hu also emphasized the need for intense education and commitment to correct political thought, this at a time of increasing rehabilitation for Chairman Mao’s teachings.
 Aviation Week & Space Technology, Jan 6, 2011
 Daily Mail, Nov 10, 2007