China's Maritime Strategy and Responses of the United States and Japan

Yoji Koda
Former Commander in Chief, Self Defense Fleet

1. Current Status of the South China Sea: History and Background of China's Construction of Artificial Islands

1-1. Historical sketch

The history of territorial disputes over major islands and reefs in the South China Sea and China's construction of artificial islands are very complicated matters. The following is a simplified sketch of major events in chronological order.

  • 1947: The Republic of China declared the eleven-dash line.
  • 1953: The People's Republic of China removed two of the dashes of the nine-dash line in the Gulf of Tonkin on the west side of Hainan Island, considering the relationship with communist North Vietnam, which was at war with France.
    The December 2014 US State Department report on the nine-dash line pointed out slight changes detected in the geographic location of the nine-dash line claimed by China and the absence of the Chinese government's official announcement on its geographic location. The US government clarified its position that China's claim lacked academic evidence endorsed by international law.
  • 1974: The PRC established effective control over the Paracel Islands. It drove away South Vietnam in a Sino-Vietnamese naval conflict this year.
  • 1988: In the Spratly Islands, a total of 13 features, each of which has an area suitable for human habitation of more than 0.02 km2 (equal to three soccer fields), had been under the effective control of North Vietnam (five features), the Philippines (six features), Malaysia (one feature), and Taiwan (one feature). As a result of a Sino-Vietnamese skirmish this year, the PRC acquired footholds in seven small reefs and rocks in the Spratly Islands.
  • 1995: The PRC seized Mischief Reef that had been under the effective control of the Philippines.

It is undeniable that China, which had had no operational base in the Spratly Islands, acquired reefs --- petty as they were. Yet, none of them could be put into practical use. China has yet to obtain an operational base in the real sense of the word.

For China, the acquisition of an operational base in the Spratly Islands became a national goal after these incidents. But a direct military invasion against the 13 features in the Spratly Islands, which were under the effective control of other coastal states, would have been an unquestionably outrageous act incompatible with its position in the international community as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Consequently, China attempted to fulfill its long-cherished desire by constructing artificial islands through reclaiming rocks and atolls that came under its effective control.

1-2. China's advancement to the Spratly Islands

China has established a large-scale naval base (the "Sanya Base") in the Yalong Bay of Sanya City, Hainan Island --- the strategic base for its South China Sea policy. In addition to a pier capable of berthing an aircraft carrier and escort ships, the Sanya Base can fully function as a submarine base. The base is confirmed to possess gates for entrance and exit, leading to tunnel-type underground facilities and special facilities for degaussing.

China reclaimed the area on both sides of Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, located about 700km south-southeast of Hainan Island, and constructed an airfield with a 2,400m runway and port facilities, thereby making the island the first key point of entry to the South China Sea. In 2015, the runway was extended to 2,700m by reclamation, and the port facilities were also renovated. Thus, Woody Island developed into the first relay point between Hainan Island and the Spratly Islands.

Although the Chinese military seized, as mentioned earlier, seven small rocks and reefs in the Spratly Islands in the southern waters of the South China Sea, it failed to secure a core base. To compensate for this failure, China constructed artificial islands in seven atolls located in the areas within a 200km-radius from Fiery Cross Atoll (from here referred to as Fiery Atoll). On the core atolls of Fiery, Subi, and Mischief emerged 3,000m runways and aviation and port facilities. The other four atolls serve as air and sea surveillance and defense posts around the three chief atolls. With the construction of these facilities on the seven atolls, a group of powerful military bases has appeared in the Spratly Islands, about 900km south of Woody Island. As a result, China's advance to the South China Sea has come to be supported by a north-south "line" connecting Woody island and the Spratly bases around Fiery Atoll, instead of the single "point" of Woody Island.

1-3. The impact of the creation of artificial island military bases on the security of the Indo-Pacific region

Since 2014, China has steadily promoted its advancement to the Spratly Islands through constructing the artificial islands mentioned above. China's advancement to the South China Sea has profoundly affected regional security. Its main impact on the political and economic front is as follows:

  • (1) China's control of the waters inside the nine-dash line, a self-righteous assertion ignoring international norms, has disrupted and destroyed the maritime order that has so far sustained human prosperity.
  • (2) China's success in "changing status quo by force" aided by the silence on the part of the Obama administration has helped China's authoritarian adventurism in political, economic, and military spheres.
  • (3) Grave concerns are mounting about the prevalence of Chinese rules ignoring international law --- "freedom of navigation and free use of the seas," universal rights of humans, are subject to restrictions in the South China Sea by Chinese domestic laws.

On the military and security fronts, the following possible implications attract concerns.

  • (1) The establishment of Chinese hegemony through China's coercive influence over South China Sea littoral states with overwhelming military power in the background.
  • (2) Further intensification of the confrontation between the US and Chinese forces deployed in the South China Sea.
  • (3) The intensification of the confrontation between China and the countries concerned over safe passage through and control rights over choke points located between the outer edge islands in the South China Sea --- choke points which connect the open sea and the South China Sea.

2. China's South China Sea Strategy: Its Challenge

2-1. Reclamation of Scarborough Reef and creation of the South China Sea Strategic Triangle

The remaining challenge for China associated with its South China Sea strategy is to turn Scarborough Reef into a military base. Located west of Luzon in the eastern South China Sea, the reef has been under the effective control of China since 2012. In 2016 China began surveying the reef. The Obama administration dispatched to the Philippines A-10 anti-tank attack aircraft deployed in South Korea; surveillance flights using the aircraft drove China to abandon its survey work. The strategic significance of a military base in Scarborough Reef is that the step would give rise to a military space in the shape of a triangle (the "strategic triangle in the South China Sea") with its sides ranging from 650 to 900km, connecting the said reef with the Spratly bases (around Fiery Reef) and Woody Island (Figure 1).

Fig. 1
Source: Map made by the author

The strategic triangle in the South China Sea would not only strengthen China's operational basis in the entire South China Sea but would also bring about an extremely serious situation for the US Indo-Pacific Command, which have support bases nowhere else than in Singapore and Diego Garcia (British territory) in its vast area of responsibility from Okinawa to the east coast of Africa. Consequently, the primary task China has to address in the South China Sea will be the conversion of Scarborough Reef into a military base, which was frustrated by the Obama administration's hardline measures, and the completion of the strategic triangle there.

2-2. Geographical limitations that Chinese naval and air forces are facing: Control of choke points connecting the open ocean and the South China Sea

A geographic feature of the South China Sea, a semi-enclosed sea, is the existence of choke points as natural obstacles that connect the area with the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The South China Sea has three straits with a depth of 100 meters or more and navigable for large combatants and particularly submarines cruising underwater: (A) the sea area between Taiwan and the Philippines (waterways there are collectively called the "Bashi Strait"), (B) the sea area south of Mindanao Island (tentatively called the "Southern Mindanao Sea Area"), and (C) the Lombok Strait in Indonesia. These three straits constitute the choke points for maritime traffic in the South China Sea. When the Chinese Navy starts its open sea activities from the Sanya Base on Hainan Island, the first choke point to pass will be the Bashi Strait (A).

As for (B) and (C), besides choke points bordering the open sea, there are inland sea choke points consisting of island groups scattered in the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea between the Philippines and Indonesia. For the relationships between them, see Table 1 and Figure 2.

Table 1

Figure 2
Source: Map made by the author

The Strait of Malacca (littoral states: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand) and the Sunda Strait (Indonesia), both of which are important points for maritime traffic, will not diminish in significance in the future. Since the depth of both straits is just a little more than 20 meters, they will not be navigable for submarines sailing underwater. In addition, China's relationships with coastal states will likely invite some restrictions on the free use by Chinese naval forces of those straits in a tense or emergency situation. As an aside, super-large tankers with a draft of 20 meters or more currently bypass both choke points, navigating the southern waters of Mindanao Island via Lombok Strait.

To sum up, China, the world's most populous economic superpower, is also a top importer of resources and foodstuffs to maintain its economic and social activities. Therefore, the security of maritime traffic to sustain its distribution network has become a primary national goal. From this perspective, the control of choke points directly linking to the safety of surface traffic between the South China Sea --- a semi-enclosed sea for China --- and the open sea has emerged as a vital challenge.

3. Current Status and Challenges of the Chinese Navy

3-1. Current status

China's massive naval upgrade in recent years is remarkable both in quality and quantity. Table 2 shows China's navy strength in 2020 for each of the three out of the five theater commands of the PLA. The western and northern theater commands are excluded, because no naval forces belong to them.

The main sea area for each of the three fleets will be as follows. The Northern Theater Command Navy is responsible for the area north of a line connecting the Liaodong Peninsula and the Shandong Peninsula; the Eastern Theater Command Navy for the area from the East China Sea to the northeast of the South China Sea (the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and Taiwan); and the Southern Theater Command Navy for the entire South China Sea excluding the area around Taiwan.

Table 2

3-2. Challenges

Although the main forces of Chinese naval fleets still hold some old military equipment, they are, generally speaking, composed of new systems, and their capabilities are estimated to be high. On the other hand, mutual support between the different fleets seems to be characteristically difficult or extremely limited due to differences in geographical positions and missions of respective theater commands. Taking the invasion of Taiwan as an example, this operation would have to be implemented by the Eastern Theater Command Army and Air Forces and the East Sea Fleet. In the event of such an emergency, the South Sea Fleet would have to defend the Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea; therefore, it would be hard for even the South Sea Fleet, the largest in the Chinese Navy, to move large forces to help, for example, the East Sea Fleet. Furthermore, choke point control operations would also become essential to prevent US naval forces from invading the South China Sea; this operation would impose on the Chinese Navy another burden comparable to the defense of artificial islands.

Another problem is that the Chinese Navy's fixed-wing and rotary-wing maritime patrol aircraft forces, which are instrumental to C4ISR activities, pivotal to all operations, are alarmingly vulnerable compared to other combat aircraft.

Besides, the operational concept associated with aircraft carriers and large amphibious warships that the Chinese Navy is assiduously developing is not free from problems. By and large, the development of forces materializes a military strategy or the concept of operations. The most vexing problem faced by the Chinese Navy is uncertainty whether its aircraft carriers (force for strategic strike) and large amphibious warships (force for power projection of marines into enemy-controlled areas) are suitable to China's strategic environment and geopolitics. In other words, the positions of these two forces in China's US strategy are ambiguous.

4. Estimated Capabilities of the Chinese Navy and the South China Sea

As examined earlier, the Chinese Navy has developed a high level of capabilities; but, simultaneously, it faces the problems mentioned in the previous section. Table 3 shows a comparison between the Chinese Navy and the US Navy's Pacific Fleet in terms of the amount of troops in 2030 (See Note).

The result of a comparison is as follows. The US Navy's Pacific Fleet is superior in terms of aircraft carrier capability. While the two navies' nuclear attack submarine forces are roughly balanced, the fact that the US Pacific Fleet possesses no conventional submarine suggests significant differences in their operational concepts for submarines. While the US Pacific Fleet is slightly superior regarding the number of large surface combatant ships, the Chinese Navy has an apparent advantage regarding surface combatant ships and small combat ships. The US Pacific Fleet rather outdoes the Chinese Navy so far as assault landing craft and large amphibious warships are concerned. But given the characteristics of the South China Sea and the waters surrounding Taiwan --- the Chinese Navy's chief area of responsibility --- and related equipment, the Chinese Navy is supposed to have developed considerable capabilities.

Table 3

Note) The number in this table is developed by outline of JMSDF's force development methodology using articles carried in the extra issues of January 2020 (US Navy) and April 2020 (Chinese Navy) of the "Ships of the World" magazine as references.

As for the operational support ships not shown in Table 3, the US Pacific Fleet is supposed to have 20 refueling ships (12 for the Pacific) and 14 cargo and ammunition supply ships (8 for the Pacific), while the Chinese Navy has 14 supply ships. The Chinese Navy can be rated to have a high operational support capability. Yet, non-aligned China does not possess any forward logistics support base equipped with a wide range of repair functions and fuel and ammunition storages that the US Navy's Yokosuka and Sasebo bases have. This may be a crucial impediment to the Chinese Navy's operations when considering its operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Thus, the gap in strength between the US Navy and the Chinese Navy regarding operational support ships is still substantial. As far as the South China Sea and the defense of Chinese territories are concerned, however, this gap may have only a limited impact on the Chinese Navy. However, given that the Chinese Navy's national mission has extended to support Chinese national policies around the world, unquestionably, the defective operational support system of the Chinese Navy will, along with choke points, constitute a grave restrictive factor.

5. A2AD Strategy (Anti-Access/Area Denial) and the South China Sea

5-1. Significance of naval power in the A2AD strategy and its strategical targets: China's national goals and Chinese naval power

China's primary national goals are as below. China's security policy and massive naval power are the means to achieve them.

  • (1) Maintain the authoritarian regime of the Communist Party of China.
  • (2) Maintain state sovereignty and dignity: preserve territorial integrity and secure national interests in the EEZ
  • (3) Maintain economic activities as the basis for state activities and for building a world first-class military power.
  • (4) Build a maritime strategic nuclear capability on par with the United States.
  • (5) Build a capability to exercise worldwide influence as a global power comparable to the United States.

The role of the Chinese Navy in achieving, first of all, (3) is to help secure stable maritime transportation. This is because both the stable import of raw materials and export of products by surface transportation is a prerequisite for China to maintain its economic activities. Meanwhile, China, which, boasting the world's second-largest GDP, is predicted by some research institutes to surpass the United States in GDP by the end of the 2020s, has now become the first continental superpower facing a resource self-sufficiency crisis. Consequently, stable maritime transportation is essential to the country.

Regarding (4), securing a second-strike capability against the United States is critical to China that aims to become a nation comparable to the United States in terms of security and military. The ability mentioned in (5) is "global reach," which is currently monopolized by the United States thanks to its overwhelming naval power. It is essential for China facing a global competition with the United States to build and acquire this capability. From the above, (3), (4), and (5) are the mission of the Chinese Navy.

Given the relationship between China's national goals and its navy as described above, both China's continued development of naval power and the expansion of its operational sea areas are a natural consequence. These are China's most important national policies rejecting any foreign meddling.

5-2. Focus of military capability development associated with the A2AD strategy

The A2AD strategy is the choice of the Chinese military that is rapidly developing its military capabilities but is still inferior to the US military in terms of overall combat capability. It, therefore, aims to build an ability to defeat US forces deployed in the Indo-Pacific region in an area as distant from the Chinese mainland as possible. The principal measures to this end include the following.

(1) Anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonic anti-ship missiles, and irregular-trajectory anti-ship missiles.

China's new array of anti-ship missiles includes anti-ship ballistic missiles, which even the US military does not possess and for which there can be limited countermeasures. The chief attack targets of those missiles may include: carrier battle groups, which are a symbol of US military power; amphibious warships, which are the key platform for Marine Corps power projection; and transport ships for the forward stockpiling of strategic materials that support the US military's ability to continue the war. Conventional anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines (torpedoes), and mines also constitute effective weapon systems to complicate and make US military operations more difficult.

(2) Domain denial against the US forces (neutralize the C4ISR functions)

This measure is to neutralize the domain awareness capability, which is what makes the US military the world's supreme combat group, and on which it highly depends. It is called "domain denial." Specifically, domain denial is not a direct attack on the political and military centers such as Washington DC and Hawaii, which are the brain of the US military, or on the front-line units that possess a strong strike power. Area denial is a capability to neutralize the C4ISR functions, which constitute the nerve system connecting US political and military centers. A direct attack on the political and military centers would be highly likely to provoke a full-scale counterattack by the US forces; a full-scale attack on the front-line units would escalate into an all-out clash between the two militaries. Even if the Chinese military won, such a clash would incur more irreparable damages than it could bear; in the worst case, it would risk losing the war. Therefore, the Chinese military is likely to adopt a basic strategy of practicing domain denial against the US military.

Taking these factors into account, the essence of China's domain denial can be said to be attacks against the C4ISR capability of the US military, most vulnerable and difficult to defend, thereby to destroy the US forces that have become sitting ducks by losing the C4ISR functions they depend on, while minimizing Chinese damages. Specific measures in this context may include electromagnetic pulse (EMP), the destruction of artificial satellites (ASAT), cyber-attacks, the demolition of undersea fiber-optic cable networks, etc. In short, domain denial is a measure to neutralize the US C4ISR capability by making full use of the different military maneuvers mentioned above, temporarily reverse the relative fighting power between US and Chinese forces, and gain a victory with minimal damage.

Operations employing measures described in (1) and (2) would launch in remote areas distant from mainland China. Those areas would include: the adjacent waters around the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the areas outside the Indonesian archipelago in the South China Sea, and the waters expanding from the Bay of Bengal to the southern Indian Ocean. China would repeat attacks against US military units deployed in the Indo-Pacific region through various routes and continue attacks to reach the vicinity of the first island chain bordering the South and East China Seas. In that case, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force units operating in the Western Pacific to support US troops that would come directly from Hawaii along the main route for US military deployment would also become a target of the Chinese operations.

6. Responses of Japan and the United States to the South China Sea Issue

To deal with the South China Sea issue and China's A2AD strategy, Japan and the United States should promote closer cooperation. Among the principal measures to be taken by the two allies to this end may include the following.

6-1. Promotion of Japan-US and the QUAD cooperation regarding chokepoint control

Although the QUAD is a new element with enormous potential in our future policy toward China, we should not entertain excessive expectations. It is indisputable that Japan and the United States should continue thoughtful efforts.

One of the factors to be taken into consideration is China's geopolitical characteristics. China's three quadrants are bordered by the South and East China Seas, both of which are semi-enclosed sea areas. Japan and the United States should study strategic use of the constraints on China's maritime traffic imposed by the choke points between the islands bordering the two China Seas. They should promote QUAD cooperation among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India to control those choke points that constitute China's Achilles' heel. Besides, they should actively encourage cooperation and participation from European and ASEAN countries.

To be concrete, Japan and the United States should aim at the construction of a system to frustrate China's adventurism in the South China Sea through the coordination of an operational concept, following which the QUAD members should define their responsible areas: Japan should take up one from outside the Bashi Strait to the Philippine Sea; the United States should be responsible for the southern waters of Mindanao Island; Australia for the southern waters of the Lombok Strait; and India for the area outside the Malacca and Sunda Straits. If it is difficult for India to get involved, it is quite natural to instead consider establishing a coordinating system by Japan, the United States, and Australia.

6-2. Building a capability to deal with China's anti-ship ballistic missiles

In terms of equipment and tactics, consideration should be given to the development and deployment of equipment of the kind that will ensure a capability to deal with China's anti-ship ballistic missiles. If US carrier battle groups or other forces were severely damaged or perished in the Indo-Pacific region by China's anti-ship ballistic missiles, such development would jeopardize US leaders and American citizens' commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. This is precisely what China aims for with its A2AD strategy. Japan should, as a US ally, take the initiative in exploring this capability to address Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles. A Japan-US joint development of such a capability would be preferable. Given, however, that Australia and India will also have to deal with the threat, collective efforts of QUAD member states would be an option.

6-3. Capacity building for maritime and air domain awareness in coastal countries around the South China Sea

In a sense, poor maritime and air domain awareness capability of the South China Sea coastal countries has facilitated China's unilateral expansion to the sea area and its assertive behavior there. Improving each country's capacity is an urgent task, but there is a limit to what they can do on their own to improve this particular capability. Therefore, the establishment by the neighboring countries --- under the support of Japan, the United States, or QUAD members --- of a mechanism for the collection and sharing of maritime and air domain information throughout the South China Sea would be significant.

Improving maritime and air domain awareness in the vast areas of the South China Sea, about 9.5 times the size of Japan's land areas, is anything but easy. If, for example, Japan and the United States, which enjoyed a monopoly on satellite surveillance data, provided properly processed information for the countries concerned, while those countries provided information on their aircraft and ships to a networked database, then an information-sharing mechanism would come into existence. Free access to the database by the participating countries would definitely improve their maritime and air domain awareness capabilities, thereby enabling them to make swift policy coordination and to decide on countermeasures in the event of an abnormal situation.

For the time being, Japan and the United States should help the regional countries with national interests in the South China Sea to improve their intelligence-gathering capabilities and also to help to establish a mechanism for collecting and sharing maritime and air domain information.

Fig. 3
Source: Diagram made by the author

7. Conclusion

Not only over the South China Sea issue but also with various issues associated with the Indo-Pacific region, China's position is diametrically opposed to that of the United States. Well aware of its capabilities and anticipating a confrontation with the United States, China hates meddling in the South China Sea --- an "intra-regional" issue --- from the United States --- an "extra regional" power.

Today's various problems, including the South China Sea issue, should be solved primarily through non-military, political, and diplomatic efforts. However, China's stance in recent years has not complied with the expectations of the United States and Japan --- "If we contact her with restraint, China will eventually transform herself into a self-restrained country." On the contrary, taking advantage of our politeness and patience, China's activities, backed by its strong military power, are becoming more coercive and flagrantly disregard international norms.

To rectify the status quo where China's arrogant behavior likened to "spoiled brat gains" is allowed to prevail, it is essential to demonstrate to China the definite commitment of US forces based on the Japan-US alliance and the determination of South China Sea coastal states. Japan and the United States should also show their adamant determination "not to hesitate to use their capabilities" when necessary. Indisputably, the role that Japan should play in resolving the South China Sea issue is significant.

current topics