21sT CENTURY SEA POWER AND GLOBAL MARITIME LEADERSHIP
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales (UNSW) at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), Canberra . Professor Thayer was educated at Brown (A.B., political science), Yale (M .A. Southeast Asian Studies) and ANU (PhD, international relations). He began his career at the UNSW and taught first at The Royal Military College Duntroon (1979-85) before transferring to ADFA (1986-2010) . His career includes senior appointments to The Australian National University (1992 95); the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii (1999-2002); Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Austral ian Defence College (2002 04); and the Australian Command and Staff College (2006-07 and 2010). He was appointed the c.v. Starr Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in 2005 and the Inaugural Frances M. and Stephen H. Fuller Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ohio University (2008). Professor Thayer is the author of over 450 publications including, "China's New Wave of Aggressive Assertiveness in the South China Sea," The International Journal of China Studies, 2(3), 2011; "The Rise of China and India: Challenging or Reinforcing Southeast Asia's Autonomy?," in Ashley J. Tellis, Travis Tanner and Jessica Keough, eds., Strategic Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to its Rising Powers-China and India (2011) and Southeast Asia : Patterns of Security Cooperation (2010).
American Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in the 21st Century
64th Current Strategy Forum U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island June 18-19, 2013 Panel 3: 21st Century Sea Power and Global Maritime Leadership
The U.S. AirSea Battle Concept and China’s Asymmetric Challenges to Maritime Security in the South China Sea Carlyle A. Thayer1
This presentation is in two parts. Part 1 critically reviews the U.S. AirSea Battle Concept, while Part 2 analyses China’s asymmetric challenges to maritime security in the South China Sea and the implications for Southeast Asia and U.S. alliance relations. The paper concludes with a discussion of the U.S. and maritime leadership.
Part 1. AirSea Battle Concept
This section presents the findings of a Strategy Report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Department of Defence-funded think tank, entitled, Planning the Unthinkable War: ‘Air-Sea Battle’ and Its Implications for Australia.2 This report was published in April 2013 before the release of Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper (May 3) and the Air-Sea Battle Office’s Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address AntiAccess & Area Denial Challenges (May 12). The views of the ASPI report do not represent the official views of the Australian Government or its Department of Defence.
Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra and Director, Thayer Consultancy. 2 Benjamin Schreer, “Planning the Unthinkable War: ‘Air-Sea Battle’ and Its Implications for Australia,” Strategy Report (Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2013). http://www.aspi.org.au/publications/publication_details.aspx?ContentID=356&pubtype=5.
The Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges notes that the AirSea Battle (ASB) is a limited objective concept; it is not an operational plan or a strategy for a specific region or adversary. It deals with global AntiAccess/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies. It aims at reducing risk, preserving the U.S. ability to project power and maintain freedom of action in the global commons. ASB provides a range of options to counter aggression. At the low end of the conflict spectrum, the ASB Concept enables decision-makers to maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikesand engage with partners to assure access. At the high end of the conflict spectrum the ASB concept preserves the ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenges posed by advanced weapons systems. U.S. investment in the capabilities identified in the ASB Concept seeks to assure allies and partners, and demonstrate the U.S. will not retreat from, or submit to, potential aggressors who would otherwise try and deny the international community the right to international waters and airspace. ASB Concept is combined with security assistance programs and other whole-of-government efforts.
The ASPI Report notes that the Air-Sea Battle is an operational concept that aims to deter and if necessary defeat the Chinese military. The ASPI Report also asserts that China’s military modernization has already changed the military balance of power in its near seas, especially in the Taiwan Strait. The ASB aims to defeat China’s A2/AD strategies by withstanding an initial attack, and then conduct a ‘blinding campaign’ against China’s command and control networks; a missile suppression campaign against land-based systems; and a distant blockade against Chinese merchant ships. The ASB is based on the assumption that escalation can be kept below the nuclear threshold. Finally, the ASPI Report states that Japan and Australia will be active allies throughout the ASB campaign.
The ASPI Report argues that the ASB should be welcomed because it strengthens U.S. conventional deterrence against China by developing a concept for operations in maritime zones contested by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). ASB could make a contribution to regional stability by promoting deterrence in U.S.-China strategic relations. The ASPI Report then offers this criticism: leaving aside funding questions, the biggest concerns about ASB are strategic. ASB is widely viewed as a U.S. effort to contain China in spite of repeated U.S. denials. For example, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert stated that ASB is a centerpiece of the Navy’s pivot to Asia. The ASPI Report notes that it is unclear how ASB fits within a broader U.S. grand strategic framework to address China’s military rise. According to the ASPI Report in fighting China there are no good options. Conflict will lead to stalemate. The ASB fails to spell out the relationship between ASB and U.S. political objectives. Yesterday one of the speakers at the Current Strategy Forum raised the the dichotomy of ‘wrestling or dancing’ with China. In my view, regional states do not want to have to make a choice, either the U.S. or China. They want a U.S. grand strategy that enables them to develop relations with both. The ASPI Report notes that the ASB is optimized for high-intensity conventional war between Chia and the U.S. and its allies. It applies only in three extreme cases: a Chinese attack on Taiwan; missile attacks on Japan or US military bases in East Asia; or sinking of a U.S. air craft carrier. ASB, therefore, faces the challenge of potential nuclear escalation. U.S. deep penetrating attacks on the Chinese mainland to disrupt PLA command and control nodes could provoke a disproportionate Chinese response. China might perceive such attacks as undermining its nuclear deterrent and miscalculate by taking pre-emptive action including nuclear escalation. The ASB Concept implementation includes: conducting engagement activities to build conceptual alignment and partner capacity and to strengthen relationships to assure access to multiple domains in the event conflict occurs. But the ASB does not address
more likely scenarios such as Chinese coercive actions in territorial disputes in the South China Sea (discussed below). The ASPI Report offers these snapshots of the role of frontline U.S. allies. Japan. Japan is a key enabler of ASB. Japan is not particularly concerned about entrapment in its alliance with the United States. .Japan can augment U.S. forces in selected mission areas, particularly submarine and air-based anti-submarine warfare (ASW); maritime ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance); maritime strike, defensive escort, and ballistic missile defence (BMD). Japan is in the initial phase of shifting towards complementarity in ASB and they have a direct interest in ASB’s success. South Korea. To the Republic of Korea (ROK) the ASB presents an unwanted risk of being drawn into conflict with China. South Korean territory could be targeted by China against U.S. forces. Nonetheless, the ROK is concerned over potential Chinese dominance in Northeast Asia and is developing a blue water navy. The ROK is concerned at being drawn into cooperation with Japan. The ASPI Report concludes that it is unlikely the ROK will offer its support for ASB unless relations with China deteriorate. Taiwan. A China-U.S. war over Taiwan is at the heart of ASB. Taiwan is the centerpiece of China’s counter-intervention or A2/AD strategy. Therefore Taiwan can be expected to play a key role in ASB. Taiwan is moving to a more asymmetric defence posture to deny the PLA approaches to the island. Australia. Australia is not a front line state but is viewed as a preferred U.S. partner, and reliable political ally. It is located in a favourable geostrategic position, and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is of high standard. Australia also provides: strategic depth. U.S. Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and U.S. long-range strike aircraft located at Australian facilities could be integral part of operations in Southeast Asia. Australia could contribute to rear guard actions and provide niche capabilities for forward deployed U.S. troops such as: tanker aircraft, Airborne Early Warning and Control, airborne Electronic Warfare, long-range strike capability, offensive strike
operations in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and contributions to peripheral campaigns including maritime interdiction of Chinese merchant and energy shipping. But, the ASPI Report argues, “fully embracing the logic behind AirSea Battle or developing specific military capabilities to underpin the concept’s implementation are so far not in Australia’s interests.” Why? Because it sends a strong message to China that ADF is actively planning and equipping for a potential war with the PLA. Australia prefers a U.S. Grand Strategy aimed at integrating China into a cooperative Asian security order. The ASPI Report also raises questions regarding the costs to Australia of developing interoperability for the ASB. Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper, issued after the ASPI Report, called for the procurement of twelve Australian designed and built follow-on Collins class conventional submarines with strike capacity; twelve Boeing EA-18 Growler fighters; seventy-two Lockheed Martin stealth Joint Strike Fighters; two new Australianbuilt supply ships; and 24 new Australian-built patrol boats. But neither the Government nor the Opposition have indicated where funding will come from. The ASPI Report makes the following recommendations: ‘Australia should call on the US to develop an Asia-Pacific strategy to provide an overarching grand strategic context for AirSea Battle… The US should provide a clear message on how it intends to deal with China’s growing military power and what role AirSea battle will play.’ The ASPI Report argues, ‘There is no need for the government or Defence to publicly endorse AirSea Battle.. At this point we don’t have an interest in signaling to China that the ADF is preparing for a future military conflict with the PLA. In the [unlikely] event of a war with China, Australia could not only provide the US with greater strategic depth but also contribute ADF military niche capabilities without having officially signed up for AirSea Battle.’ Australia also should seek clarification of the role MAGTF and U.S. Air Force elements rotating through bases in Australia would plan in a future AirSea Battle context. How would they be used in event of conflict between China and the United
States? Nonetheless, Australia should study the implications of integration of the ADF into a Southeast Asia AirSea Battle framework operating with US forces. Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia becomes more prominent in ASB as part of a distant blockade to cut China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) by controlling chokepoints and anti-submarine barrier from the Ruyuku islands to Luzon Strait, the Philippines islands to southern exits of South China Sea. According to the ASPI Report, regional states look to U.S. for support as part of hedging strategies against a more assertive China but do not want to be roped into over battle planning against China. It is also unclear how ASB would apply to territorial disputes with China. The ASPI Report offers these snapshots of prospective ASB partners: The Philippines. The Philippines can offer facilities and access to bases to be used by U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines to stage operations in the South China Sea. The Philippines is building up A2/AD capabilities from a very low base and in present circumstances there is not much else that the could contribute to ASB. Singapore. The Singapore Government would think twice before committing to ASB and giving operational consent that could involve Singapore in major war with China. If the strategic environment deteriorated Singapore would become more an important U.S. partner. It presently hosts Littoral Combat Ships and its navy and air force could play a supporting role. Vietnam. Vietnam is building up its own A2/AD capabilities through force modernization. Vietnam would be reluctant to move too close to the U.S. overtly and is therefore unlikely to offer access to facilities or bases. Indonesia. Indonesia’s geostrategic location ideally places it to play a role in ASB as part of a distant blockade. The ASPI Report summarizes the position of the non-frontline states in Southeast Asia as providing less potential support for ASB than the frontline states in Northeast Asia.
Southeast Asian states, the Report argues, are most reluctant to support a concept that could lead to rapid escalation. In their view, territorial disputes in the South China Sea do not warrant a major war with China.
China’s Asymmetric Challenges in the South China Sea
This section reviews China’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. Chinese capabilities in the South China Sea would certainly be targeted in an ASB campaign. The South Sea Fleet headquarters at Zhanjing, Guangdong province. forms the central hub of a major complex of strategic space and tactical long-range radars and communications to support operations in the South China Sea. These electronic systems link Woody Island, Fiery Cross Reef and other Chinese-occupied features with local and fleet commanders. Also, they are augmented by the combat and other electronic systems of PLA Navy (PLAN) warships, aircraft and paramilitary vessels. One of China very first high-powered very low frequency (VLF) stations was built at Yalong Naval Base near Sanya on Hainan Island to communicate with submarine and surface ships. Hainan Island houses several electronic intelligence (ELINT) installations. The PLAN stations several major surface combatants, amphibious landing craft, and conventional and nuclear submarines at Yalong. Continued construction indicates that Yalong will be able to accommodate larger advanced surface combatants such as assault ships, attack and ballistic missile submarines, and eventually one or more aircraft carriers. Continued construction at Yalong suggest that it will be a major military base that will provide China with the capacity to surge expeditionary forces into the South China Sea and beyond. The Yalong Naval Base will also provide China with a forward presence to protect its SLOCs through the Malacca and Singapore Straits or alternatively, disrupt adversary transit via these SLOCs. Satellite imagery has confirmed the presence of a single Chinese Type 094 Jin-class nuclear submarine at Yalong since late 2007. The Type-094 is a second-generation nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and represents China’s most lethal
naval strike weapon. This marks the first permanent deployment on an SSBN to China’s South Sea Fleet. Five more Chinese Jin-class SSBNs are expected to become operational in coming years and Yalong is expected to become their home base. China regularly conducts major naval exercises to showcase the growing prowess of the PLAN. Chinese naval exercises in the East China Sea in October 2012 involved PLAN warships exercising with the paramilitary vessels from the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and the Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC). A total of eleven ships and eight aircraft took part.3 A statement issued by the PLAN East Sea Fleet noted, ‘This exercise will simulate a situation where foreign law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with our maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels on a mission to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law.’ In this exercise the East Sea Fleet responded by dispatching a frigate, hospital ship, tugboat and advanced fighters and helicopters ‘for support, cover and emergency rescue.’4 In late June 2012, China’s Ministry of Defence, revealed that China had commenced combat-ready patrols in disputed waters in the South China Sea. PLAN exercises can be viewed as a demonstration by China that it is now capable of deploying beyond the first island chain to the second. The implications are clear: China is developing the capacity to sustain larger naval deployments in the Spratly archipelago and further south for longer periods. This is a significant development because up to now the PLAN has played a relatively low-key behind-the-scenes role in South China Sea incidents. China’s surveillance patrols have been mainly conducted by ships belonging to the CMS force or the FLEC. Developments on Hainan have been paralleled by China’s construction activities in the Paracel islands. The airstrip on Woody Island can accommodate fighter aircraft such as the Su-27 and Su-30MKKs, H-6 bombers and large supply transport aircraft. Other
“East China Sea tension: China conducts naval exercises,” BBC News Asia, October 19, 2012.
Ariel Zirulnick, “China’s naval exercises in East China Sea send warning to regional rivals,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 2012.
military infrastructure on Woody Island includes naval docks capable of accommodating frigates and destroyers and a fuel depot. Open sources report that China may have stationed the HY-2 anti-ship cruise missile on Woody Island.5 China established its military presence in the South China Sea by force of arms. In January 1974 it seized the western Paracels from the Republic of Vietnam after a naval engagement. In March 1988, Chinese naval forces attacked communist Vietnamese naval forces and marines and occupied Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995 by landing there and building structures. The facilities on Mischief Reef have since been upgraded with the construction of two new piers, a helicopter pad, a marine navigation radar, several antiaircraft guns and an anti-ship cruise missile system (either the HY-2 or C-801). In sum, China has developed an enhanced capability to exercise its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and protect its vital SLOCs through the Malacca and Singapore Straits as well as the capacity to surge expeditionary forces into the South China Sea from these bases with a considerably shortened logistics tail. By extension, China will also have the capacity to interdict the same SLOCs on which Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are dependent. These developments portend a greater Chinese capacity to assert regional influence and to challenge U.S. naval supremacy. China’s Paramilitary Fleets. China’s maritime surveillance fleet is estimated at more than 300 vessels only two of which, the Haixun 11 and Haixun 31, weigh more than 3,000 tons. In October 2010, China announced it would build thirty-six new China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels for maritime law enforcement over the next five years. In May 2011, the CMS announced it would recruit 1,000 more law enforcement officials, bringing its total to over 10,000 personnel. And in June 2011, China announced plans to expand its maritime surveillance force to sixteen aircraft and a total of 350 vessels by 2015. In late July 2012 China launched the Haixun 01, weighing 5,418 tons. This is China’s largest and most capable ship in its maritime surveillance fleet.
Bill Geertz, “Woody Island Missiles,” The Washington Times, June 15, 2001.
In recent years China has mounted an asymmetric threat to the sovereignty of the Philippines (and also Vietnam) by engaging in ’legal warfare’ – promulgating laws and regulations that justify so-called normal sovereignty enforcement missions by its paramilitary fleets. These now operate hand in hand with civilian fishing fleets. In April 2012, when the Philippines attempted to arrest Chinese poachers caught in Scarborough Reef, China prevented their arrest by interposing CMS and Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) vessels. A standoff quickly developed. The U.S. played a behind-the-scenes diplomatic role in getting both sides to agree to withdraw. The Philippines withdrew but China remained erecting a cable barrier to the mouth of the shoal. China also has declared a no go zone for Filipino fishermen effectively annexing Scarborough Shoal. Another confrontation is developing at the present moment at Ayguin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal). In 1999 the Philippines beached an LST and have maintained a small detachment of marines to demonstrate sovereignty. Chinese military and civilian ships have now appeared at Ayguin and demanded that the Philippines withdraw from Chinese territory. The Philippines are fearful China will interfere with resupply efforts and leave the stranded marines with no choice but to withdraw. In summary, China’s use of legal warfare combined with civilian paramilitary ships and commercial fishing vessels in the South China Sea have enhanced its capacity to enforce its sovereignty claims and to intimidate other claimant states. They bear the onus of escalating the situation or backing off. China’s strategy of legal warfare poses an asymmetric challenge to the United States and its ally, the Philippines. Current U.S. engagement policies and future AirSea Battle operations at the lower end of the conflict spectrum do not address this current challenge to maritime security. The U.S. must devise an effective counter-strategy to deter China from its present course and to prevent any weakening of its Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines.
Future Global Maritime Leadership
It is clear that the majority of regional states support a clear role for U.S. leadership in regional maritime security issues. These states do not want to make a choice between China and the United States. Regional states support U.S. deterrence against the rise of Chinese military power. The ASPI Report argues that the U.S. should develop an alternate concept to the ASB, one that stresses denial to Chinese naval forces within the first island chain in conflicts short of war. A strategy of denial diminishes the risks of escalation. Regional states prefer to see the U.S. adopt a Grand Strategy that deters Chinese assertiveness while at the same time engages China and draws it into playing a constructive role in providing support for the regional commons by adhering to established norms and rules of the road. Regional states would like the United States and China to become enmeshed in the multilateral security architecture such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The U.S. and its partners should promote norms and legal regimes (such as codes of conduct) and practical activities in the ASEAN Regional Forum, ADMM Plus (Expert Working Groups) and EAS. The U.S. could play a role in obtaining regional consensus on streamlining the regional security architecture so it addresses maritime security issues practically. U.S. leadership is needed to counter China’s resort to legal warfare and its asymmetric challenge to state sovereignty through the use of civilian fishing fleets and paramilitary enforcement vessels. The U.S. is implementing long-range plans to enhance maritime domain awareness and capacity to enforce sovereignty. But China is currently undermining the Philippines’ sovereignty and the credibility of US security guarantees on a daily basis. The ultimate aim of a U.S. Grand Strategy is to get China to moderate it assertiveness, cease intimidation and coercion in handling its territorial disputes, and join with other maritime powers in securing the global and regional commons.