Thursday, July 8, 2010

China flexes its naval muscle

China flexes its naval muscle
By Peter J Brown

China this week again used the East China Sea as a setting for military maneuvers and exercises that it knew would rattle the United States and its allies. After recently calming Japanese concerns about rising tensions in this area, China shut down all vessel traffic in a large zone off the coast of Zhejiang as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted a series of live fire drills.

The PLAN engages in such drills each year, and does so in waters considered part of China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). All ships, including US military surveillance ships, are given fair warning to stay clear.

At the same time, because US Navy carriers do not frequent the Yellow Sea for a variety of reasons, China was sending
messages in advance that "national interests could be damaged" if the US proceeds to deploy a US carrier during a joint exercise with the South Korean navy later this summer.

"Under current situations, relevant parties should exercise restraint and refrain from doing things that may escalate tensions and harm the interests of the countries in the region," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

Having this floating symbol of US military might deployed so close to China is perceived by Beijing as more than a very unfriendly gesture on the part of the US. Another US aircraft carrier has just passed through the Panama Canal and will soon transit the Pacific Ocean - something else that Beijing must keep in mind.

Simply put, seldom have so many warships been exercising all at once in the Pacific. A large fleet of US and allied warships are engaged in the RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii, and the Russians are conducting a very large exercise in the western Pacific region.
Speculation swirled in the US and elsewhere about the possibility that the PLAN would launch Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) - known as "carrier killers" - during its East China Sea exercises just north of Taiwan.

Although photographs of the PLAN exercises have appeared, including numerous so-called Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft (FAC) and some of FACs firing YJ-83 missiles, there has been no independent verification of an actual ASBM launch by the PLAN in 2010. [1]

China vigorously denies any connection between its coastal defense exercise and the US carrier. However, the Chinese have engaged in their own spirited discussion about what is unfolding off their coastline, and many Chinese see a distinct connection.

"Though the Chinese government did not say anything about the drill, anybody with common sense on military strategy will bet that they are related," said Shi Yinhong, a senior expert on US studies at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, according to a China Daily report.

Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of Xinhua's World Military magazine, attempted to prod the PLAN into accepting the presence of a US aircraft carrier so close to China as an unusual opportunity to conduct further drills using the US ship as a hypothetical target. [2]

"Chinese naval activities and maritime claims in the Western Pacific have become more assertive," said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Tokyo-based Ocean Policy Research Foundation. "The PLA naval exercise was an attempt to check the expected US-ROK exercise in the Yellow Sea, especially the participation of the USS George Washington. In other words, that shows how much China is concerned about the US carrier based in Japan."

Kotani sees no reason why the US should refrain from sending its carrier to the exercise.

"It is totally legitimate under international law. Otherwise, the freedom of action and strategic mobility of the US military would be severely undermined,' said Kotani. "The US should be more assertive, hopefully with the Self-Defense Force. The US and Japan should consider trilateral exercise with ROK, too."

As much as the increasing size and power of the PLAN is a concern for the US-Japan alliance, the PLA's asymmetric warfare capabilities - such as anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite attack capabilities, quieter submarines, sophisticated mines, cyber and info attack capabilities - constitute a much more serious concern.

"The introduction of those asymmetric warfare capabilities can destabilize the balance of power in the region. So Japan needs to join the development of the 'AirSea Battle' concept to further support US forward presence," said Kotani.

The Japanese media's analysis of the situation, at the same time, is reflecting the unease and growing anxiety of the Japanese people over China's "saber-rattling" and attempts to fend off the US. The Chinese government seems to take these attitudes in stride.

"Naval tensions in the region have been high since the March 26 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan , which has been blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack," the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun declared this month. "China has long considered the Yellow Sea to be its 'backyard' and the dispatch of the aircraft carrier is being characterized as an 'attempt to invade the Yellow Sea using the sinking as a pretext'," according to the Chinese global affairs journal Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times). [3]

According to Yukie Yoshikawa, senior research fellow at the Edwin O Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies in Washington, DC, the fact that the Japanese government is remaining rather quiet about the PLAN exercise in the East China Sea is a bit deceiving because both the Japanese government and Japanese people are quite concerned about it.

"The Japanese view it in extension of a series of incidents involving Chinese ships which invaded the Japanese EEZ in April and May," said Yoshikawa. "Since then, the Japanese understand that China is willing to expand its control so as to be able to access the Pacific. Japan happens to be in between which will be a growing concern."

By the way, when Qin made his remarks about the need for restraint, he said nothing about the fact that two PLAN warships from the North China Sea Fleet had once again passed close to Okinawa on their way to the Pacific in early July.

While the PLAN drill is a regularly scheduled event, this year it has happened at the exact time when the US and Japan may be close to resolving the bitter and lengthy argument over the future of the Futenma military base on Okinawa. China may be exploiting the instability of US-Japan relations, and even experimenting to see how far it can go before US and Japan will respond.

"The US and Japan should show China that it has gone far enough and needs to back off. In that sense, terminating the current stalemate was one good sign, and announcing a joint exercise with Korea, though postponed, was another," said Yoshikawa. "But the US should do more, and anything that demonstrates that the US is still committed to the security of Northeast Asia is necessary, including proceeding with the deployment of a US carrier in the joint exercise with Korea."

Yoshikawa also recommends that military-to-military exchanges between the US and China "should be resumed, more seriously, in order to not escalate the situation any further".

In terms of the US military posture in the western Pacific, Yoshikawa supports the status quo.

"The US should be in the picture, since all the neighboring countries have designed and planned their defense structures under the assumption that the US would be stationed in Japan, the ROK," said Yoshikawa. "In order for the US military presence to fade, Japan needs to enhance its military capabilities that are now designed to rely on the US, while discussing arms reduction with China, the ROK, and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], and making collective agreements on sea-lane defense between Japan and the Middle East. As far as none of this is happening, the US needs to stay."

At the same time, mounting concerns in Japan over China's activities and recent behavior should not be misunderstood as somehow transforming China into some sort of a direct threat to Japan in the eyes of the Japanese.

"The reality is that while Japan cannot overtly say China is a threat because Japan already depends heavily on China economically, Japan has not given enough serious thought to China, nor its future and its military ambitions," said Yoshikawa. "This concern will be expressed more indirectly as 'the US military role is and continues to be important to Japan', rather than saying 'China is a threat, so we need to team with the US to contain China'. This is a lesson from former Japanese prime minister Junichiri Koizumi's time in office."

Russia's presence cannot go unmentioned. Despite the intense focus on the PLAN and the whereabouts of a US aircraft carrier, Russia quietly assembled several warships in the Sea of Japan from its North, Black Sea and Pacific fleets in order to conduct its largest naval exercise in many years. With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looking on, Russian battle cruisers and destroyers that had arrived in the region weeks earlier fired anti-ship missiles over long distances, and performed other anti-carrier maneuvers in the Sea of Okhotsk earlier this month.

In doing so, Russia is sending a strong signal to both China and Japan.

"It is hardly surprising that such exercises are conducted on the Pacific theater of war, as this region is and will remain one of the most conflict-prone areas for Russia in the next 20-30 years," said RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik. "Russian-Japanese disagreements over the disputed South Kuril archipelago, called the 'Northern Territories' by Tokyo, and Russia's proximity to a powerful China prompt Moscow to find new ways to defend its Far East possessions in the event of a hypothetical conflict." [4]

Amid all the talk about exercises and China's rapidly improving naval capabilities, the US Navy is raising questions about its own state of readiness. Navy Times obtained a copy of the long-awaited report prepared by a US Navy panel headed by retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle about the questionable condition of some of the US Navy's Aegis-equipped warships.

The findings of the Balisle panel are considered a wakeup call in terms of the US Navy's important and expanding anti-missile mission. In a nutshell, the report identified numerous serious problems including a lack of adequately trained and experienced personnel, degraded radar operations on numerous ships, the presence of a failure to understand the importance of strong, reliable and consistent system performance. [5]

This report will be required reading to many, given the fact that AEGIS-equipped warships are vital components in the ballistic missile defense networks now in place in the US, Japan and soon Europe. In light of the looming ASBM threat in particular, the dependence of US aircraft carriers upon the anti-missile screen provided by these ultra-high-tech warships is only going to increase.
China focuses on 'far sea defense'
By Joseph Y Lin

Recent discourse concerning the Chinese People's Liberation Army's (PLA) modernization has principally focused on technological advances and less on the human dimension of PLA force transformation. In particular, a review of these discussions revealed the absence of a publicly available database of Chinese military leaders with the rank of full general (shangjiang).

Against the backdrop of the PLA's stated intention to reorient the armed forces as part of its modernization efforts, an analysis of promotion patterns of the 118 PLA generals (1981-2009) may yield important insights into the foci of PLA force transformation.

PLA to build up navy and air force
A string of recent statements by senior Chinese military officials alluding to the realignment of the PLA indicates that significant
changes in the composition of the armed forces may be in the offing.

In April, the Chinese Defense Ministry's spokesperson Senior Colonel Huang Xueping stated during an interview, "It's quite natural that we want to build up a streamlined [emphasis added] military force which has more focus on technologies rather than man power." Huang's statement, taken in the context of increasing Chinese naval assertiveness in international waters near Japan and in the South China Sea in recent years, has raised questions over the PLA's intentions and capabilities.

To be sure, the Chinese military leadership seems to be signaling its intention to depart from its long-held emphasis on the army for the air force and navy. By enhancing the role of the navy and air force, the goal of its effort appears aimed at extending China's military power projection capability into the Pacific while reducing the size of its total military force.

According to Senior Colonel Yang Chengjun, a researcher with the Second Artillery Force of the PLA, the proportion of the army in the Chinese military is a "problem" rooted in history and points out the need to "optimize the composition of different arms" in order for the Chinese military to meet its modern day challenges.

Echoing the Chinese Defense Ministry's position, the director of the Center for Arms Control and International Security Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, Teng Jianqun, considers China's focus on naval and air force development to be "inevitable".

Taking the analysis one step further, Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA major general now with the government think-tank China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA), believes that China can achieve these transformative goals with a budgetary allocation among China's army, navy and air force at a 50:25:25 ratio, representing a shift from the current 60:20:20 ratio.

Xu does not see a 40:30:30 ratio since he believes that China's naval and air power will "mostly be used to enhance the combat effectiveness of our [China's] ground forces". Xu's statement seems to imply that the PLA - at least for the time being - is not emulating American global power projection capabilities supported and enabled by US military budgets that have in recent years allocated resources among the army, navy and air force roughly along a 40:30:30 ratio [1].

'Far sea defense' strategy
The advent of the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN's) "far sea defense" (yuanyang fangyu) strategy calling for the development of China's long-range naval capabilities, appears to be one of the major drivers behind the push to transform the composition of the Chinese armed forces.

Yin Zhuo, a retired PLAN rear admiral who is now a senior researcher at the navy's Equipment Research Center, stated in an interview with People's Daily Online that the PLAN is tasked with two primary missions: preservation of China's maritime security (including territorial integrity) and the protection of China's burgeoning and far-flung maritime economic interests.

And while the former is still the PLAN's chief concern, the PLAN is beginning to prioritize more attention to the latter. Rear-Admiral Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of the PLAN's East Sea Fleet argues, "With the expansion of the country's economic interests, the navy wants to protect the country's transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes." The rear-admirals' statements present a legitimate rationale behind the PLAN's new strategy.

The far sea defense strategy is significant for two reasons. First, it declares that China's naval ambitions extend beyond its traditional coastal area or "near sea" (jinyang). Secondly, it expands the PLAN's defense responsibilities to include the protection of China's maritime economic interests - which China's latest defense whitepaper did not explicitly address [2].

It stands to reason then that a possible key motivation behind the reorientation of China's armed forces stems from China's perceived need to project power beyond its coastal area to where the PLAN is required to carry out the newly expanded far sea defense duties.

CMC as China's highest military commanding body
As the highest military policy and commanding body in China, the CMC supervises and commands five service branches of China's armed forces: the PLA ground forces, PLAN, People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Second Artillery Corps (SAC) and the People's Armed Police (PAP) (which falls under the joint leadership of the CMC and the State Council).

Since the restoration of military rank (junxian) in 1988, the CMC has promoted 118 military leaders to generals: 17 under Deng Xiaoping (1981-1989), 79 under Jiang Zemin (1989-2004) and 22 to date under Hu Jintao (2004-present)

The Chinese military has traditionally been influenced by its ground forces because of China's historical status as a land power. Additionally, the PLA ground forces can trace their roots to the 1920s, predating the founding of the People's Republic of China and all other service branches.

Therefore, ground forces generals not surprisingly represent a lion's share or 71% of the total. Yet, Hu has promoted substantially more "non-ground forces" (PLAN, PLAAF, SAC and PAP) generals than his predecessors. In percentage terms, 45% of Hu's generals are non-ground forces, compared to 25% and 24% for Jiang's and Deng's, respectively.

Strategic Second Artillery Corps
The CMC directly supervises and commands the SAC, which controls China's nuclear arsenal and conventional missiles. Its small manpower (estimated at 100,000 or 3% of Chinese military manpower) notwithstanding, the SAC has produced a disproportionately large number of generals.

Of the 118 military leaders promoted to generals, six (or 5% of the total) were SAC generals - which may be an indication of the SAC's special status in China's armed forces. Hu has promoted the most SAC generals in percentage terms (9%), compared to Deng (6%) and Jiang (4%). Hu's relative overweight in his SAC generals is a reflection of the strategic emphasis he places on the SAC.

Internally oriented People's Armed Police
While other service branches are externally oriented, the internally oriented PAP is charged with "the fundamental task of safeguarding national security, maintaining social stability and ensuring that the people live in peace and contentment" [3].

Jiang successfully incorporated the PAP into the CMC's command structure by promoting the first PAP general in 1998. Altogether, he promoted five PAP generals, representing 6% of his total. Continuing the emphasis on PAP generals, Hu has promoted two PAP generals, representing 9% of his total. Since domestic stability remains among Hu's and the CCP's highest governing priorities, one can expect Hu to continue promoting PAP generals.

Hu to promote more admirals
Excluding the strategic SAC and the internally oriented PAP to determine the relative proportions among the army, navy and air force generals, one finds that 33% of Hu's generals are non-ground forces (PLAN an PLAAF), compared to 17% and 19% for Jiang's and Deng's, respectively.

In other words, Hu's generals are 67% army, 11% navy and 22% air force. Jiang's generals were 83% army, 7% navy and 10% air force, whereas Deng's generals were 81% army, 13% navy and 6% air force.

Hu appears to have begun the process of reorienting his generals by emphasizing the promotions of military leaders in the navy and air force. Given China's naval ambitions and the relative under-representation of PLAN admirals (when benchmarked against Xu's stated target proportion at 25%), one can therefore expect Hu to emphasize the promotions of PLAN admirals.

As CMC chairman, Deng promoted 17 generals in a single "class" in 1988. Jiang on average promoted generals once every two years between 1989 and 2004, with the average "class size" at about 10 generals. Hu on average has promoted generals once every year between 2004 and 2009 with the average class size at four generals. Where Jiang appears to have institutionalized the promotion process, Hu appears to have regularized the promotion process.

If Hu continues to promote generals at roughly the same pace as he has in the past, he could reasonably promote another 10 generals by the end of his tenure as CMC chairman in 2012 (although he may hold on to CMC chairmanship beyond 2012 following Jiang's example). Given the reorientation of China's armed forces as a PLA priority, one should expect to see an overweighting in the promotions of non-ground forces generals in Hu's remaining tenure.

Of the additional 10 Hu generals, assuming one slot is set aside for each of the SAC and PAP, one may find it reasonably likely that the other eight could comprise three army, three navy and two air force generals.

This combination will result in a final relative weighting of 58% army, 19% navy and 23% air force for Hu's generals - a directionally consistent outcome when compared with Xu's stated goal of 50% army, 25% navy and 25% air force.

The number of PLA Navy admirals is not likely to leapfrog as Hu is expected to continue his gradualist and balanced approach in promoting his generals in the future, taking into consideration each service branch's interests and representation as in the past. This also reflects Hu's rather cautious approach to the military given his lack of a military background. Yet the goals are clear. This is only the beginning of a long-term trend.

1. Todd Harrison, Analysis of the 2010FY Defense Budget Request (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, August 12, 2009): 38. When the "defense-wide" item is excluded from the US military budget, the relative budgetary ratio among the army, navy (including the Marine Corps) and air force has been approximately 40:30:30 in recent years.
2. Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, "China's National Defense 2008", January 2009, Section V: 7.
3. Ibid, Section VIII: 10.

Joseph Y Lin currently studies at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies of Tamkang University in Taipei, Taiwan.