The New York Analysis continues with its review of the Department of Defense’s 2016 Report to Congress on China’s Military Developments. Today’s second of our three part except of the Report focuses on Beijing growing international activities.
CHINA’S EVOLVING OVERSEAS ACCESS
China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to regularize and sustain deployments in the “far seas,” waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. In late November, China publicly confirmed its intention to build military supporting facilities in Djibouti “to help the navy and army further participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKO), carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance.” This Chinese initiative both reflects and amplifies China’s growing geopolitical clout, extending the reach of its influence and armed forces.
China’s expanding international economic interests are increasing demands for the PLAN to operate in more distant seas to protect Chinese citizens, investments, and critical sea lines of communication (SLOC).
China most likely will seek to establish additional naval logistics hubs in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and a precedent for hosting foreign militaries. China’s overseas naval logistics aspiration may be constrained by the willingness of countries to support a PLAN presence in one of their ports.
So far, China has not constructed U.S.-style overseas military bases in the Indian Ocean. China’s leaders may judge instead that a mixture of preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLAN logistic facilities—probably collocated with commercial ports—most closely aligns with China’s future overseas logistics needs to support its evolving naval requirements.
Preferred access would give the PLAN favored status in using a commercial port for resupply, replenishment, and maintenance purposes. A logistics facility would represent an arrangement in which China leases out portions of a commercial port solely for PLAN logistics operations.
Such a logistics presence may support both civilian and military operations. China’s current naval logistics foortprint in the Indian Ocean is unable to support major combat operations in South Asia.
A greater overseas naval logistics footprint would better position the PLAN to expand its participation in non-war military missions, such as non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), search-and-rescue (SAR), humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR), and sea lines of communication (SLOC) security. To some extent, a more robust overseas logistics presence may also enable China to expand its support to PKO, force protection missions, and counterterrorism initiatives.
For example, in 2015, the PLAN’s naval escort task forces performing counterpiracy escort duties in the Gulf of Aden were able to utilize Djibouti and Oman for basic resupply and replenishment.
DEVELOPMENTS IN CHINA’S TERRITORIAL DISPUTES
South China Sea. China depicts its South China Sea claims by using a “nine-dash line” that encompasses most of the area. China remains ambiguous about the precise coordinates, meaning, or legal basis of the nine-dash line. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Vietnam all contest portions of China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.
In 2015, China accelerated land reclamation and infrastructure construction at its outposts in the Spratly Islands. When complete, these outposts will include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics facilities, and three airfields. Although artificial islands do not provide China with any additional territorial or maritime rights within the South China Sea, China will be able to use its reclaimed features as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its presence in the South China Sea significantly and enhance China’s ability to control the features and nearby maritime space.
Throughout 2015, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships maintained a presence at Scarborough Reef, continuing operations that began in 2012. Chinese officials asserted in 2015 that the patrols were normal and justifiable, claiming that China has indisputable sovereignty over the various features in the South China Sea and adjacent waters. Both China and the Philippines continue to claim sovereignty over Scarborough Reef and Second Thomas Shoal. China maintains a continuous CCG presence at both locations while the Philippines stations military personnel aboard a tank landing ship that has been grounded on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999. In October 2015, an arbitral tribunal constituted at the request of the Philippines and pursuant to Chapter XV of the Law of the Sea Convention ruled that it has jurisdiction to decide certain disputed issues between the Philippines and China, such as whether a particular feature is an “island” entitled to a territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf; a “rock,” a subset of islands that are entitled only to a territorial sea; or a feature that is submerged at high tide and thus not entitled to any maritime zone of its own. The arbitral tribunal will not rule on sovereignty claims to land features. The tribunal is expected to issue a ruling on the merits of the case in 2016. China continues to reiterate that it does not accept the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal and will not abide by its decision.
Other disputed areas include the Luconia Shoals, Reed Bank, and the Paracel Islands. The Luconia Shoals are disputed by China and Malaysia and may contain extensive oil and natural gas reserves, as well as productive fishing grounds. Reed Bank is claimed by both China and the Philippines, and in August 2014, China sent hydrographic research vessels to survey the area. In disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, tensions between China and Vietnam spiked in 2014 when China deployed and commenced operation of a state-owned exploratory hydrocarbon rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam.
East China Sea. China claims sovereignty over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; this territory is also claimed by Taiwan. Since 2012, China has used maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to patrol near the islands in order to challenge Japan’s administration. Chinese officials continue to claim the islands are part of China’s territory and that China will resolutely respond to any perceived external provocation.
Last year, China balanced this concern with efforts to improve relations with Japan gradually. The two countries resumed official senior-level exchanges in 2015 following President Xi’s first bilateral meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November 2014, where both sides announced a four-point agreement to improve bilateral ties.
China-India Border. Tensions remain along disputed portions of the Sino-Indian border, where both sides patrol with armed forces. After a five-day military standoff in September 2015 at Burtse in Northern Ladakh, China and India held a senior-level flag-officer meeting, agreed to maintain peace, and retreated to positions mutually acceptable to both sides.
DEVELOPMENTS IN CHINA’S FOREIGN MILITARY ENGAGEMENTS
China seeks to leverage engagement with foreign militaries to enhance its presence and influence abroad, bolster China’s international and regional image, and assuage other countries’ concerns about China’s rise. PLA engagement activities also assist its modernization by facilitating the acquisition of advanced weapon systems and technologies, increasing its operational experience throughout and beyond Asia, and giving it access to foreign military practices, operational doctrine, and training methods.
Combined Exercises. PLA participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises continues to increase in scope and complexity. In 2015, the PLA conducted at least nine bilateral and multilateral exercises with foreign militaries. The PLA conducted its first field exercise with Malaysia, first naval exercise with Singapore, and first air force exercise with Thailand. China also conducted bilateral exercises with Russia, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. China participated in the Mongolia-hosted multinational peacekeeping exercise, KHAAN QUEST and a counterterrorism exercise with Tajikistan under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Many of these exercises focused on counterterrorism, border security, peacekeeping operations (PKO), and disaster relief; however, some also included conventional air, maritime, and ground warfare training.
China and Russia also conducted NAVAL COOPERATION 2015, which consisted of two phases; the first in the Mediterranean Sea and the second in the Sea of Japan. This was the fourth NAVAL COOPERATION exercise since 2012 between China and Russia and was intended to strengthen bilateral military ties and increase mutual trust between both militaries. Phase one in the Mediterranean focused on protecting sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and combating terrorism and phase two in the Sea of Japan featured simultaneous amphibious landings, joint air defense drills, and anti-surface ship drills.
A PLAN task force conducted a cruise around the world from August 2015 to February 2016, during which it conducted bilateral training with Denmark. Ships from the 20th Naval Escort Task Force in the Gulf of Aden stopped in 13 countries, including Poland, Cuba, Sweden, the United States, Denmark, and Australia. This is the first PLAN operation to circumnavigate the globe since 2002, building on more recent naval visits to Africa and Europe.
CHINA’S USE OF LOW-INTENSITY COERCION IN MARITIME DISPUTES
China has used low-intensity coercion to enhance its presence and control in disputed areas of the East and South China Sea. During periods of tension, official statements and state media seek to frame China as reacting to threats to its national sovereignty or to provocations by outside actors. China often uses a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed areas and avoid escalation to military conflict. China has also used punitive trade policies as instruments of coercion during past tensions and could do so in future disputes. In 2015, China continued to employ Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy ships to implement its claims by maintaining a near-continuous presence in disputed areas in order to demonstrate continuous and effective administration. Recent land reclamation activity has little legal effect, but will support China’s ability to sustain longer patrols in the South China Sea. In 2012, China restricted Philippine fruit imports during the height of Scarborough Reef tensions. In 2010, China used its dominance in the rare earth industry as a diplomatic tool by restricting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan amid tensions over a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese patrol ship.
RECLAMATION AND CONSTRUCTION IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
China paused its two-year land reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands in late 2015 after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies; other claimants reclaimed approximately 50 acres of land over the same period. As part of this effort, China excavated deep channels to improve access to its outposts, created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors, and constructed new berthing areas to allow access for larger ships. Development of the initial four features—all of which were reclaimed in 2014—has progressed to the final stages of primary infrastructure construction, and includes communication and surveillance systems, as well as logistical support facilities.
At the three features where the largest outposts are located, China completed major land reclamation efforts in early October 2015 and began transitioning to infrastructure development, with each feature having an airfield—each with approximately 9,800 foot-long runways—and large ports in various stages of construction. Additional substantial infrastructure, including communications and surveillance systems, is expected to be built on these features in the coming year.
China’s Government has stated these projects are mainly for improving the living and working conditions of those stationed on the outposts, safety of navigation, and research. However, most analysts outside China believe that China is attempting to bolster its de facto control by improving its military and civilian infrastructure in the South China Sea. The airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent coast guard and military presence in the area. This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them.