PAUL MALEY The Australian 12:00AM June 4, 2018
On a clear blue day two weeks ago a long-range bomber with a wingspan the size of a swimming pool landed on a tiny island 400km south of China. The four-man crew of China’s H-6K strategic bomber didn’t stay long on Woody Island, the largest island in the disputed Paracels archipelago. Thirty-eight seconds of carefully edited footage posted to the People’s Daily Twitter account showed the H-6K gently touching down before lifting off again into the blue void above the South China Sea.
Weeks earlier Beijing had secretly deployed a battery of anti-ship missiles to the Spratly Islands, a dusting of atolls 500km to the south of Woody Island and, like the Paracels, claimed by China. Like the H-6K, the YJ-12B cruise missile is all about reach. It is capable of hitting a target 540km away. The significance of the move was immediately obvious to Australian and US strategic planners. The People’s Liberation Army can now strike at ships at just about any point in the South China Sea, should it choose to.
Taken together, these two small facts point to a much larger one: the struggle for primacy in the South China Sea is essentially over. For all the debate about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Beijing now controls the waterways around much of maritime Southeast Asia, a point recently conceded by the new commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson.
“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,’’ Davidson told the US Senate armed services committee.
At the weekend, the US appeared to toughen its stand over the increasing militarisation of the South China Sea, with Washington warning of a more aggressive response after US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned there could be “much larger consequences” in the future from China’s moves to install weapons systems on islands in the sea.
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What is astonishing about this is not that it has happened but that it has happened so quickly. As the Trump administration ponders how to contain a nuclearised North Korea with missiles capable of striking anywhere in East Asia, and soon perhaps the continental US, the rapid militarisation of the South China Sea provides a timely reminder of the dangers of allowing complex strategic problems to drift.
China’s ambition to garrison the South China Sea with a string of militarised reefs, islands and atolls is barely five years old. The first dredger arrived at Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in December 2013. Since then, Beijing has built runways, aircraft hangars, underground fuel reservoirs, bunkers and barracks. Radar-jamming equipment has been deployed and the seabed around the Spratlys and Paracels is quilted with underwater sensors listening intently for foreign submarines.
China’s next step will be to deploy forces to these man-made islands — squadrons of aircraft and anti-ship batteries that will allow Beijing to exercise near total mastery of the sea and air lanes around the South China Sea. Analysts believe that some time after that it will probably declare an “aerial defence identification zone’’, effectively a territorial claim on the skies.
“In the time it took us to write our defence white paper, China militarised the South China Sea,’’ Australian Strategic Policy Institute director Peter Jennings reflected dryly. “It was that fast.’’
That might be an exaggeration. But it is a fact that while the West was fighting Islamic State and trying to impose order on Afghanistan, control of a piece of geography roughly the size of western Europe was ceded to an emerging power whose long-term intentions are far from clear. “We were very slow to really see what they were up to and now China has gotten ahead of us,’’ says Peter Leahy, the former chief of army and now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.
China’s speed in militarising the South China Sea has rendered old debates redundant and raised fresh questions about Australia’s ability to meet the challenges of a new strategic era, one where half the world’s submarines will be operating in our region by 2030. It has changed the balance of power in Asia, undermined the rules-based order and reduced the West’s options in dealing with a rising China.
Liberal senator and former army chief of operations in Iraq Jim Molan says the longstanding debate about whether Australia should conduct so-called freedom of navigation of operations off the Spratly and Paracel islands — much less actually undertake them — is now over.
“I am not convinced that freedom-of-navigation operations are tactically or strategically significant,” Molan told The Australian. “The exercise of international rights to go through the South China Sea will be permitted by the Chinese until they don’t want to permit them.’’
To Molan, China’s rapid success in asserting influence in the South China Sea represents a failure of Western strategic thinking — the inability to act decisively on major issues because the threat they pose is not readily apparent. He cites the steady nuclearisation of North Korea as one such example.
“Acting early is difficult and risky but the consequence for not acting early are horrendous,” Molan says. “This Western attitude reflects the diverse nature of the Western alliance plus the fact that we expect that others will acknowledge the law. This can be naive. The strategic lesson from the last few decades should be that when national power is used by anyone in the West it should be used early and decisively.”
Jennings believes Beijing was savvy in exploiting the innate caution of president Barack Obama. Obama’s unwillingness to intervene forcefully in places like Syria, Libya and the South China Sea emboldened Washington’s adversaries, including China. Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia when she was Obama’s secretary of state implicitly recognised the strategic importance of the Asia Pacific region, and Jennings argues it was fear of a Clinton presidency that spurred the Chinese to hurry their efforts in the South China Sea.
“I think the Chinese calculation was that if it was going to happen it needed to happen in the second half of Obama’s presidency,’’ Jennings says. “I think they thought a Clinton administration, which was coming next, could provide more obstacles.’’
Leahy doesn’t go quite that far. But he does believe the rapid fortification of the atolls around the South China Sea showed a major lack of strategic foresight.
“It was a lack of imagination to think the Chinese could do something of this magnitude so quickly,’’ he said. “It was an inability to understand what was happening.’’
China is not Russia. For all the alarm over Beijing’s militarisation, China has shown none of the blunt-force aggression that has accompanied Russia’s re-emergence as a global power player. China has not invaded its neighbours, armed foreign militias or assassinated dissidents on the shores of friendly countries. It has not downed commercial passenger jets, vandalised democratic elections or laid waste to entire cities in order to prop up discredited regional strongmen, as Vladimir Putin has done in Syria. Save for its national mission to reclaim Taiwan, which China regards as a rogue province, one at the very core of Chinese national identity, China has given no indication it will deal in the sort of naked aggression that has distinguished Putin.
Nor is Beijing’s desire for control of the South China Sea surprising or outrageous. Encircled by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and The Philippines, the South China Sea is effectively a large inland waterway, one that abuts China’s southern flank. It is the main theatre for China’s expanding fleet of submarines, all of which must pass through the narrow choke points off Taiwan and The Philippines before they can roam the deep, safe waters of the Pacific. It is rich in oil and gas. It is a plentiful source of fish. Great powers have always sought spheres of influence for themselves and China is no different. Despite the arrival of the H-6K, Leahy believes China’s near-term ambition is not to project force but to defend against it.
“At the moment, because they don’t have much force to project, I think it’s about them trying to develop strategic space around China and trying to deny the US the ability to reinforce Taiwan and operate close up to China,’’ he says.
But the South China Sea is one of the world’s most strategically important waterways, a hub that binds the maritime nations of Southeast Asia and provides free passage for nearly one third of all maritime traffic, or $US5.3 trillion ($7 trillion) worth of global trade. Billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath its seabed. Strategists worry that China’s disregard for a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that dismissed Beijing’s claim on the Spratlys could trigger a wider breakdown of the rules-based order governing the myriad of territorial claims across maritime Southeast Asia.
Like Molan, Leahy sees little point in the Royal Australian Navy conducting freedom-of-navigation operations through the South China Sea. The US Navy has been doing them for years — sailing their warships within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly and Paracel islands. The point has been made.
“If we do do (FONO) we should do them independently,’’ Leahy says. “We shouldn’t do it as part of a coalition. We should do it as a sovereign naval effort.’’
Australia’s defence posture is now firmly angled towards the emerging threats of the Pacific. The government has bought 12 new submarines from French Naval Group, formerly DCNS. The subs compare favourably to those of our competitors in the region, although analysts warn that Beijing is making great strides in overhauling its own fleet. The Future Frigates build, due to be announced this month, will add nine new frigates with advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities to Australia’s arsenal.
Word around Canberra is that British company BAE is Defence’s preferred choice, although few people know for sure. BAE’s design is the most technically sophisticated of the three contenders’, but it is a concept boat, meaning it is more likely to be subject to manufacturing delays than one already in the water, such as Navantia’s F-5000 or Fincantieri’s FREMM, which is already in service with the Italian navy.
Whichever way the government goes, there will be fierce argument about the final choice. Defence analysts will spend whole lifetimes arguing over arcane points around hull design, propulsion and weapons systems.
For Defence though, the problem is brutally practical: it must provide the navy with the most technically proficient anti-submarine technology on offer without exposing the nation to a capability gap that could see Australia poorly defended at a time when the region is at its most perilous.
Jennings thinks the government has made the right choices so far but he worries that regional security is deteriorating.
“The most obvious risk is that we’re talking about acquisitions that won’t give us a capability for at least a decade,’’ he says.
“My sense is we don’t have that long to wait before we find some serious military conflict.’’