The Chinese maritime strategy

(To Renato Scarfi)
15/04/21

In another article we looked at the Russian naval strategy, which refers to the garrison of maritime "bastions", as a defense against attacks on its territory. A defensive approach that tends to destroy the antagonistic naval forces in the event of any hostile actions and to guarantee an effective reaction with atomic weapons against the enemy territory.

An approach that clearly differs from the strategy of continuous advanced presence of US fleets on the seas of the world and from the new concept of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), conceived by the US Navy, which gave new impetus to the development of landing capabilities of the Marines. A régime is a question of having very high projection capacities capable of rapidly concentrating the means necessary to amplify the power of the naval group operating in the area affected by the crisis, adding modern amphibious capabilities.

In a nutshell, it is a concept designed for the needs of advanced presence in order to "... defeat adversary attempts to execute counter intervention and fait accompli strategies that might otherwise inhibit a credible US response to aggression against treaty allies and economic partners ..."1. The ultimate aim is to have the ability to conduct power projection operations in order to cancel any aggressive strategies without resorting to the destruction of the opposing forces.

In this context it should be emphasized that, while the EABO clearly differs from the Russian approach, which is based on the significant contribution of ground-based means (airplanes, missiles) for the protection of strategic underwater forces and to make the 'area of ​​the "bastions", the Chinese strategy appears to place itself in a position of equidistance between the two powers of the Cold War, having points in common with both the US and Russian lines.

The geopolitical and economic context

Understanding the maritime strategy of Beijing cannot ignore the knowledge of the various and important interests that gravitate in front of the Chinese coasts. The People's Republic of China has, in fact, for some time already implemented a vast diplomatic offensive, supported by the maritime military instrument, for its territorial claims in the South China Sea (v. article). In fact, Beijing believes that about 90% of that area is to be considered as Chinese territory. The reasons are mainly economic, given that about 80% of its energy imports and 30% of world maritime trade pass through that stretch of sea, which under its waters is almost 10% of the world's catch and that its depths contain an enormous quantity of natural gas and oil.

In the East China Sea, the Sino-Japanese dispute over the exploitation rights of the vast "Chunxiao" gas field (estimated at about 4,8 billion cubic meters), which is located within the boundary of the Chinese EEZ, but only 4 km from the Japanese EEZ (it is thought that the field extends well outside the Chinese area), it seems to have seen Beijing and Tokyo resolve their differences with an agreement for joint extraction.

China's maritime / territorial claims are based on the so-called "nine-leg line" which, in the shape of a "U", starts roughly from Taiwan and passes along the west coast of the Philippines, turning south towards the waters off Malaysia to then return north to the Vietnamese peninsula, reaching the Chinese island of Hainan.

The area within this ideal line is dotted with islets, sandbanks and outcropping cliffs, mostly uninhabited which, as of 2013, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (People's Liberation Army Navy - PLAN) has decided to militarize in order to establish an advanced territory and extend its area of ​​economic and military influence on that very busy stretch of sea. Claims that the Arbitral Tribunal, called to express itself in the Philippines, has defined substantially illegitimate. Nonetheless, China continues along its route, indifferent to the 2016 ruling, meeting strong opposition from the United States and some coastal countries.

The USA, in particular, has been applying the strategy of containing Chinese expansion within two denominated lines since 1950 "Island chains", the first of which connects the Korean peninsula, the southern waters of Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore. The second, further from the Chinese coasts, starts from Japan, passes through Guam and Palau, up to New Guinea. Added to this is the creation of a large network of regional alliances, which we have already talked about in other works in this newspaper.

Taiwan (Formosa)

The main issue of friction between the two nuclear powers is Taiwan. It is a de facto (but not legally) independent and democratic nation, born on 1 October 1949, when the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan following the seizure of power by Mao Zedong. On the occasion, he brought with him the gold reserves of the country and what remained of the Chinese Air Force and Navy after the fierce battles for power. The Communists of the People's Republic of China outlawed the Taiwanese nationalist government which, even today, considers itself the only legitimate government in China. In fact, in its constitution it claims sovereignty over mainland China and outer Mongolia. The capital de jure it is Nanjing, on the Chinese coast, while the provisional capital is Taipei.

The Republic of China, as it is also known, consists of a group of islands which, in addition to the main one separated from mainland China by an arm of sea at most 95 NM wide, about 185 NM long and with an average depth of 70 m , also includes other islands and small archipelagos such as Penghu (Pescadores), Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu, geographically located much closer to the Chinese coasts. Taiwan is recognized by only 15 sovereign states in the world.

Until the 90s, Beijing could not help but launch empty threats against Taipei, not having the naval capacity to cross the strait with large expeditionary forces, in order to regain control of what they consider a "rebellious" province. At the same time, Taiwan was known to be the militarily strongest side of the strait.

Today things have definitely changed and the Chinese Navy has reached the capacity to allow the "leap" from one bank to the other of the substantial military contingent made up of about 360.000 soldiers stationed in the Chinese sector of the Taiwan Strait (out of the approximately 915.000 total arrangement by Xi Jinping).

Nonetheless, Beijing would prefer to settle the issue peacefully and, in the meantime, keep diplomatic pressure high. On January 2, 2019, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, delivered a long speech addressed to the Chinese and Taiwanese populations, in which he stressed that "... the two sides of the strait belong to one China and together we will work to achieve national reunification ...", airing the possibility that the future order of a reunified China could foresee "... one country, two systems ...". A statement that, given the events in Hong Kong and Macao, aroused much disturbance and no enthusiasm in the Taiwanese.

Xi himself has repeatedly confirmed that his goal is a peaceful reunification of the two sides of the Strait but that, albeit with extreme reluctance, China is ready to use all the military force it has and will have to bring Taiwan back to the continent. . In this context, it has also issued a firm warning to anyone who intends to interfere in the question between the two Chinas, both with direct and indirect aid. Beyond the language used, it was a cautionary speech, which strongly emphasized that for Beijing the Taiwanese issue is at the top of the to-do list. And, given the considerable economic and territorial implications of the issue, it is not even a topic used to distract the attention of the international community, in order to pursue other objectives, perhaps by making a move of the horse somewhere else on the globe. The maritime communication lines that surround Taiwan are indeed fundamental for the Chinese economy and for the connections between the northern and southern ports of that great country.

To keep the pressure on Taipei high, the Chinese Navy continues to flex its muscles by crossing more and more often in the waters around the island and stops at nothing to reaffirm its position. On 7 April, for example, Chinese units intercepted a French frigate sailing in the Taiwan Strait, ordering it to leave as it was in Chinese territorial waters.

...and not only

As mentioned, Taiwan is not the only maritime topic on the Chinese political agenda. The territorial claims on the archipelagos of the Spratly Islands (also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei) and the Paracelsus Islands (also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam) contribute greatly to maintaining tense relations between the coastal countries and China. In fact, Beijing has militarized a large part of those areas, building discovery and surveillance installations, military airports and missile batteries, as well as ports that allow ships to be immediately available in the area of ​​operations. Furthermore, the naval posture becomes more and more aggressive, in order to discourage the transit of “unwelcome” naval vessels.

Last August 2020, for example, the Chinese Coast Guard confiscated the fishing equipment of some Filipino fishing boats that were located near the Scarborough shoal, an area of ​​about 150 sq km (maximum height 1,8 m) at 105 NM west of Luzon and 520 NM east of the Chinese island of Hainan.

On April 8, according to French media reports, a Filipino ship was sailing near Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll of about 20 km in length which is periodically submerged at high tide and which is 110 NM a west of the Philippine island of Palawan and over 540 NM east of Hainan, when a Chinese Coast Guard patrol boat approached, asked for identification and then ordered them to leave. To avoid any kind of problem, the Filipino commander decided to return, but the Chinese ship continued to chase him for over an hour, sometimes getting too close and at high speed.

The whole event was filmed by the ABS-CBN crew who were on board the Philippine ship to carry out a report on the problems of Manila's fishing boats in those waters. After a few miles, when he was in sight of Palawan, two fast attack patrol boats Type 022 (“Houbei” class) of the Chinese Navy also approached.

These two events suggest how the Chinese Navy is behaving as if it had effective authority over those waters. The situation is summarized by the recent statements by the Filipino Defense Minister, with which Delfin Lorenzana accuses Beijing of having occupied part of the maritime space of the Philippines and of wanting to impose its own rules on the entire South China Sea, as well as having invaded the area. Economic Exclusive west of Manila with over 220 fishing boats, creating a lot of inconvenience and damage to Filipino fishermen.

An extremely tense situation that risks lighting a fuse that is difficult to control and in which the PLAN plays a leading role.

The Chinese Navy at the forefront

It is, therefore, as a result of these unresolved conflicts (in particular Taiwan) that the division between Beijing and Washington, two nuclear powers, could deepen. However, US support for Taiwan should not be taken for granted, given that the US (Kissinger) had already hypothesized a move away from the island in the past, in order not to exacerbate tensions with China. In such a scorching context, the Chinese Navy is at the forefront of supporting China's expansionist policy. It is for this reason that since 2003 a season of large shipbuilding has been inaugurated, which has led Beijing to now have a fleet quantitatively greater than that of Washington (see article The Chinese challenge to US naval power of 25 November 2020). A decisive change of strategy, given that China has always been a terrestrial military power.

A very rapid quantitative (and in many ways qualitative) growth that allows China to be present also on many seas of the world, starting from that Indian Ocean which has now geopolitically merged with the Pacific, creating the great Indo-Pacific theater. A presence of Chinese military ships that goes as far as the Persian Gulf (where in December 2019 they carried out joint exercises with Russia and Iran), Djibouti and also the Mediterranean. Activities that allow the Chinese Navy to gain experience and international visibility, while demonstrating the firm will not to remain locked up within its geographical borders but to become a global (maritime) power.

But the area on which Beijing's efforts are most concentrated is precisely that of the waters off its coasts. First of all, to implement a credible nuclear deterrence strategy to protect the home maritime areas and those claimed, Beijing has equipped itself with the strategic ballistic missile JL-2 (NATO acronym CSS-N-14) which, derived from the "land" missile DF-31, is embarked on the “Jin” class 094 submarines (NATO classification), and boast a range of approximately 8.000 km. These second-generation boats are part of the modern Chinese nuclear deterrent triad and are based in northern China. However, this location, albeit strategic, has important operational contraindications. The bottom of the Yellow Sea, for example, rarely reaches a depth greater than 50 m in Chinese territorial waters and, even if the depth rises to over 100 m near the Korean peninsula, it still appears insufficient to make diving routes safe. To cope with these problems, the construction of a second ballistic submarine base is underway in the Gulf of Tonkin, on the aforementioned island of Hainan. The new location will allow submarines to access deep ocean waters more easily.

But China is not limited to submarine nuclear deterrence. In fact, since 2013, Beijing has been using the numerous outcropping sandbanks of the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos to build artificial islands for military purposes. Officially the purpose is to create outposts from which to monitor the claimed fishing areas but, according to what is reported by theAsia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major think tank United States, the size of the installations, the materials used and the armament supplied reveal the true nature of advanced air-naval bases.

Other observers estimate that the reinforced concrete hangars built on those islets can each house up to a flock of fighter bombers, defended by radar installations and YJ-12B and YJ-62 supersonic anti-ship missile batteries, with a range of up to about 400 km2. These are missiles that have now reached high precision, especially thanks to the Chinese satellite guidance system, the "Beidou". In fact, China has created a rival and competitive system of GPS, in order to be completely independent. According to the Chinese authorities, the constellation of forty-four satellites (as of 2019) allows, in fact, a position accuracy of five meters, like that of GPS, even if for military use the accuracy increases considerably in the two systems. All of this means that the Chinese are now able to launch ballistic or cruise missiles at a given target with the reasonable certainty of hitting it. But it also means that the US can no longer derail the launch simply by turning off the GPS system.

Furthermore, the Chinese military installations also feature modern electronic warfare equipment and relevant port and logistic facilities. The protective umbrella offered by this combined aero-radio missile system covers the entire area of ​​the South China Sea, with advanced detection capabilities and the possibility of hitting targets even beyond Taiwanese, Indonesian, Malay, Philippine, Vietnamese and Thai territories.

Not only that, the particular geographic location and distribution of these militarized islets allows for mutual protection and the multiplication of crossfire power against any adversaries. These modern interconnected fortresses are the practical application of the concept of Anti Access / Denial Area (A2 / AD) and represent a clear threat to those who intend to protect the principle of free navigation on the seas and defend the maritime communication lines that cross the area. These islands, however, are nothing more than the emerging part of the Chinese naval "bastion". Under the surface, in fact, China is organizing a kind of copy of the system of Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) similar to the one installed between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom during the Cold War period. In practice, a submarine “Great Wall” of acoustic sensors capable of detecting the movements of naval units and submarines.

The fleet of fishing boats, many of which are equipped with advanced electronic equipment, which allows to warn in near real time of the presence of any "intruders" in the contested waters, is added to help in gathering information.

The young Chinese Navy is, therefore, gradually increasing its assertive posture, in line with Beijing's maritime strategy, mainly by employing its modern multi-role platforms, equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities, which make use of efficient ballistic missile systems and cruising, capable of striking with precision at considerable distances. A naval instrument supported by the units of the Coast Guard, recently militarized and by the aforementioned fishing fleet, which acts as a widespread sensor.

A fleet that appears more and more overall addressed to the projection of power and the possibility of acquiring and controlling the maritime areas of strategic interest.

Conclusions

In many respects, the long-term effect of China's maritime strategy has still unclear implications. It is, therefore, quite difficult to make predictions since there are many factors that contribute to making a naval posture effective. First of all, the level of training and expertise of the crews. The Chinese have substantially no experience (or traditions) of combat on the sea and this could negatively affect the fate of a possible "hot" fight. Nonetheless, every good planner knows that organizing is necessary to be able to deal with the worst-case scenario.

Faced with the growing power of the Chinese Navy, therefore, some US experts are asking to evaluate the possibility of activating competing bastions in the South China Sea. The USA boasts a remarkable network of alliances in the area (South Korea, Japan, Philippines, etc ...), but most likely the most delicate bastion is Taiwan, the object of perverse attention from Beijing, whose geographical position cuts in half. the Chinese maritime communication lines. For the Celestial Empire, the island represents, therefore, a thorn in the side and the promise, if peacefully reunited or occupied militarily, of a better strategic situation that would see, for example, the possibility for nuclear submarines to cross freely in domestic waters and the opportunity to reach areas of the Pacific far more distant from the motherland, bringing the American territory within the range of action of its own ballistic missiles.

A threat that the US has well understood and cannot allow it to happen. Furthermore, suddenly leaving Taiwan alone would send a bad message to American allies in the area, starting with the Japanese and South Koreans. A message that would make the US lose much of the credibility it has built with decades of presence in those waters. It is for these reasons that China moves very cautiously on the Taiwanese dossiers and territorial claims in the South China Sea. In the short term, therefore, it does not seem conceivable that China will decide to act by force to resolve its maritime issues.

At the moment, the most accepted hypothesis is that Beijing continues the provocations with continuous naval and air exercises near the island, in order to show the Taiwanese population and the military apparatus of Taipei its enormous progress in acquiring military capabilities. . A psychological pressure exerted constantly to "advise" the Taiwanese government to sit down at the negotiating table for peaceful reunification with the People's Republic. A proposal that Taipei is still very reluctant to consider. China may also decide to heighten the pressure through non-destructive measures such as cyber attacks on Taiwan's banking systems, airports, stock market, etc ... Measures that would not cause loss of life or destruction of infrastructure, but which would have significant economic repercussions on the business of Taipei.

A possible future option, which would significantly raise the level of confrontation, could then be the creation of a naval blockade around the island or, in a broader sense, of the entire area within the nine sections. Despite the numerous and modern ships, however, the PLAN does not yet seem to have the weight and quality necessary to confront an opponent such as the US Navy, should it decide to break the possible blockade imposed by Beijing, which is not certain. On the contrary, in such an event it would seem more likely a US counter-blockade response to merchant vessels of Chinese interest in the waters of the rest of the planet, where currently Beijing has absolutely no strength to secure the essential supplies to keep its economy galloping. . A substantial increase in the overseas deployment of Chinese military units (to be used as an escort for convoys bound for China) could, therefore, be an indicator of a possible decision by Beijing to use force.

The worst scenario, on the other hand, foresees the military occupation of Taiwan, which could only be preceded by an air or missile attack against the island's airport installations, in order to eliminate the possibility of reaction of the modern enemy fighters. In the case of US intervention in support of the small republic, the Chinese could not help but foresee (most likely missile) attacks also on American installations in Japanese territory such as Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Iwakuni AFB on the island of Honshu and at the naval base. of Yokosuka, where the ships and aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet are located. But, given that the protection of American ships also depends on coverage by the Japanese air force, the attacks are also expected to affect the Japanese airport facilities in Okinawa and Honshu, where four fighter squadrons are located on two airports, further widening the conflict, which could further spread across the planet. However, these would be attacks which, to be effective, would have to be conducted simultaneously on six Taiwanese, American and Japanese bases plus a seventh attack on the Anderson AFB in Guam, formally American territory, where the long-range heavy bombers and refuelers are positioned. . Such a coordinated attack requires a high capacity for joint coordination, which at the moment does not seem to be reached by China, which today does not appear to be able to confront the USA even at the underwater level, both for overall capabilities and for the training of the crews.

It should also be considered that, even if the Chinese maritime strategy is designed on long-term horizons, the real strength of the PLAN derives from the fact that it is still concentrated in a fairly limited area, that of domestic waters. When Beijing decides to compete in force also on the seas of the world, the power in front of the house will be reduced considerably, significantly decreasing the Chinese bargaining power on the issues of the South China Sea and on the A2 / AD strategy in the area.

According to Giorgio Grosso, of the Center for Geopolitical Studies and Maritime Strategy, the Chinese approach is now certainly oriented to operations in areas not far from the coasts, as can be understood by analyzing the composition of the forces of the PLAN, which can be traced back to a model "Green water" with reduced projection capacity. He then adds that "... the manifest technological and operational superiority of the US Navy, which today would entail the certainty of defeat in a direct confrontation, together with the inability of the Chinese Navy to reach a similar level in the short and medium term, is a factor that has pushed Beijing to think in asymmetrical terms, with substantial investments in those sectors that would allow China to convince the United States that the economic and human cost of a possible military intervention would be too high compared to the benefits (concept closer to Corbettian relative superiority than to the Mahanian sea command ) ... " and underlines that Beijing is in no hurry to raise the level of confrontation, given that the Chinese system allows a continuity of political and strategic action that is difficult to detect in a democratic system. 

When Xi Jimping states that China's maritime strategy is based on building an instrument that is capable of fighting effectively and winning wars, he is most likely thinking precisely of the Taiwanese issue as an immediate goal, but he imagines a much broader theater. To achieve its subsequent objectives, however, it will need a fleet that is not only numerically important, but that can support this strategy anywhere in the world. A goal that does not appear within Beijing's reach for at least the next twenty years.

However, it is essential to keep vigilance high because the Chinese approach in international relations is now more evident than ever and, should the collective memory show gaps, we have the experience of Hong Kong to remind us of this.

In the meantime, the PLAN is increasingly proposed as a tool in rapid development, having as its objective the implementation of the maritime strategy outlined by Beijing, with the carrying out of prolonged "naval presence" missions even in areas far from home and a growing capacity to exert maritime pressure in line with the Celestial Empire's foreign policy objectives.

1 Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) Handbook, 1 june 2018, version 1.1

2 US Naval War College Review of 2011

Images: MoD People's Republic of China / CSIS / Naval Institute Press Annapolis / US Navy