How to counter China’s fortified islands in South China Sea

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Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this June 16 satellite image by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/ via Reuters

China has taken advantage of its alleged helpfulness to the United States in the Korean negotiations to fortify three islands in the South China Sea with two different types of missile systems, the HQ-9B surface to air missile which is much like the Russian S-300 air defense system, and the YJ-12B supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, which may be based on the French Enhanced Medium-range Air-to-Ground Missile (ASMPA) or the Russian Kh-31.  All are cruise missiles, but the French missile’s dimensions more clearly match the YJ-12B. Unlike the others, the French cruise missile has a nuclear warhead.

The YJ-12B uses a rocket booster engine and a ramjet for the remainder of its flight, a little like the Nazi V-1 flying bomb, but much faster. If China is successful in its pursuit of hypersonic missiles, either it could choose to replace the YJ-12B with a hypersonic cruise missile, or it might decide to upgrade the YJ-12B by replacing its ramjet with a combined ramjet/scramjet power plant.  Currently, the YJ-12B is said to fly (when launched from land) around Mach 2, or two times the speed of sound which puts it near the low end of supersonic flight speed and exposes it to US missile defense systems such as those onboard US missile ships.  If instead, China is able to boost it to around Mach 5 it will be at the low end of hypersonic performance and much more difficult to defeat. Whether or not China has such a plan is guesswork, but it would seem that their R&D efforts are taking it in this direction.

The Chinese missiles that are now deployed at Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and while these reefs are claimed by numerous parties – Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam as well as China, China has moved in, built radars, power facilities and defenses including the new missiles.  These Spratly assets sit astride vital sea lanes of communication involving transit vital to the littoral states around them (which also include Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand) and northward to Japan and Korea. Control of these “SLOCS” greatly influences who controls world trade and who has effective military power in the Pacific and beyond.

South-China-Sea_ATMaps_2018_small-bIn the short term, China is exploiting its growing strength not only in reference to the other nations in the area but also creating severe problems for the United States which has performed the key role of protecting transit in the South China Sea since the end of World War II. In effect, China is attempting to replace the US in the protection role, and raising the threat level to the US Navy as America’s naval forces and aircraft are now actively targeted by the ground-based anti-ship and air defense missiles China has installed.

Likewise, some think the Spratlys are an important asset in China’s plan to isolate Taiwan by making it impossible or nearly impossible for US carriers to come to Taiwan’s defense since China will, as it did in 1996 close down the Taiwan Straits and may also close military transit through the South China Sea, perhaps on the pretense it is carrying out a military exercise.  In simple terms, if these sea lanes are closed the US will have to decide whether to “run the gauntlet” opposing Chinese power, or stand down.

China’s move in the Spratlys also has to do with the US deployments of the aircraft carrier Vinson in early March to Danang, Vietnam in a show of strength meant to warn China. That four-day visit, that also included a missile ship and a destroyer, was a definite challenge to the Chinese who may have responded by speeding up the installation of missiles on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs. Otherwise, they may have held off until the Korea deal was completed.

The reality is that the main American bases supporting freedom of navigation and security operations are quite some distance away from the region, primarily in Japan, on Okinawa, at Guam and Pearl Harbor. Guam is more than 3,000 kilometers from the South China Sea meaning that a fast carrier response starting from there is not possible.  Pearl Harbor is even further, some 8,000 km from Taiwan and even farther from the South China Sea so for the US to maintain security in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea it will need to maintain a constant presence.  This will be a challenge for the Navy to maintain active deployments, a challenge that has already proven costly in a couple of major accidents involving US missile ships – one near Japan and the other near Singapore.

The result is fewer available naval assets and a loss of vital missile defense capability. Similarly, accidents involving US aircraft including the F-18s used by the Navy and Marines weaken deterrence.  As the F-35 becomes fully operational new aircraft will replace the old ones, but this is still some years out before the transition is completed. In the meantime, it will be a struggle.

China’s aim is to put more and more pressure, not only on Taiwan but also on Japan. China has gone so far as to make territorial claims on Okinawa, the main island in the Ryukyu chain. According to China, the Ryukyus started to pay tribute to China in 1372, half a millennium before they were seized by Japan, making Okinawa and the remainder of the Ryukyus simply a tributary of China. No one takes China’s argument very seriously, but the intention behind it is to create uncertainty over the future of the Ryukyus and provide China with an excuse to use political and military leverage to destabilize Japan.

China has been in a serious dispute with Japan over the boundaries of both its declared Exclusive Economic Zone and Japan’s claim that is in conflict with China’s declared EEZ, which has led to some nasty incidents recently. These claims impact Okinawa and the Ryukyus directly. China is also promoting the  Ryukyu independence movement. The local efforts on Okinawa to relocate the US bases on the island and the frequent complaints about the dangers of Marine helicopters or the behavior of US military personnel are not just coming from local sources.  According to Japan, China is stirring up trouble on Okinawa.

A view of Taiping island in the South Chia Sea on November 29, 2016.Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration conducted rescue drills in the waters around Taiping Island on November 29, part of President Tsai Ing-wen's push to transform the island into a base for humanitarian aid and disaster relief in the disputed South China Sea. / AFP PHOTO / SAM YEH

A view of Taiping island in the South Chia Sea on November 29, 2016. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

In the South China Sea, there are a few islands not under China’s control.  Two of the most important are Pratas and Taiping islands, both of which are governed by Taiwan.  Both have airstrips, both are supported by Taiwan’s Coast Guard. Taiping Island is the only Spratly island with fresh water. Taiwan runs C-130 transit operations to both islands, and the Taiwan Coast Guard sends fast patrol boats to each.

But unlike the now fortified Chinese controlled reefs and islands, Taiping and Pratas are only very lightly defended. But that could change in future.

Today the US does not appear to have a regional strategy other than trying to continue its standard practices in the area. But this appears to fall short because China is becoming more powerful and more aggressive as seen in its military moves around Taiwan, its naval and air operations in the South China Sea, and its stepped up attempts to push Japan away from the United States.

All of these Chinese moves call into question the traditional American deterrence formula which is to use its military and political power to maintain order in the South and East China Sea regions. US operations consist of freedom of navigation exercises, which are now strongly shadowed by Chinese aircraft and naval ships; and by the presence of US aircraft of different types (B-52 bombers, fighter aircraft, and surveillance flights), which are also drawing responses from China.  The fact that China showed off its new J-20 stealth aircraft in the South China Sea is how China is making a point about its presence and its capabilities.

To be effective, the US must replenish both US Navy resources and training, modernize its air forces and missile defenses and acquire more bases closer to both the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.  This is a tall order. It is expensive and it requires long-term vision and commitment.

The Trump administration is already moving to rebuild defenses, fix the Navy and repair and improve old equipment and buy new. The Navy and Marines are also working on upgrading training and readiness.

But more has to happen.

Washington has to strengthen its regional allies, especially Japan and Taiwan, by stepping up strategic patrols and by backing enhanced military cooperation agreements, especially between Taiwan and Japan. As retired Japanese admiral Tomohisa Takei, who also was the former chief of staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) pointed out this past week, it is high time for Japan to increase its military exchanges and cooperation with its close neighbor Taiwan.  American support for any arrangement is absolutely necessary.

Both countries should actively be sharing intelligence on China’s naval and air operations that impact both countries.  Tracking Chinese submarines should be carried out cooperatively to make it more difficult for China to threaten either country.  Data from radars will help provide situational awareness – Taiwan has a superb and well-positioned long-range radar that can help Japan understand about China’s air operations and locate its missile bases. Both countries should be coordinating their patrols and surveillance activities which will be an immediate force multiplier.  Sharing this information actively with the US creates a kind of defense triad of great significance.

It is also important to see technology collaboration in vital areas including missile defense, naval protection systems, submarine and Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) technology. The US has offered to help Taiwan with submarines but Japan has stayed silent. It is in Japan’s interest and the US interest for Taiwan to have modern submarines for self-defense.

Regional alliances will have the important effect of making it easier for the US to stay the course in the region. Lacking such cooperation puts undue pressure on the US Navy, Marines and Air Force which will be left on their own to support regional security, a posture that may not be acceptable to the American people or the US military. The US has a right to expect that its allies will cooperate not only directly with the US but with each other to make the total effort effective and to avoid costly errors and mistakes that can happen where there is neither cooperation, coordination or even deconfliction of operations.

Washington can provide much leadership in bringing about the changes needed to sustain deterrence in East Asia.  It has not done so in the past as it sought to appease China.  But appeasement lets things drift unacceptably and China’s power is reaching the tipping point.  Washington and its allies have to move ahead now or lose the chance to do so for good.

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