For the past two years, China has embarked on an aggressive encroachment of the East China and South China Seas and the islands and reefs in those waters. And her neighbors aren’t happy about China’s bullying and salami-slicing techniques. But the most disadvantaged among China’s neighbors is the Philippines, which is the weakest militarily among the Asian countries. The country is at the mercy of China who had been grabbing Philippine territories since the forced removal of U.S. bases in 1992.
In 1994, China took possession of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the middle of the night and built fortifications on it. China said that it was going to be used as a rest area for fishermen in the area. China also occupied the Subi Reef and built a 4-story building and deployed around 200 troops. It is located 16 miles southwest of the Philippine-occupied Pag-Asa Island. It is claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
Twenty years later, China took another slice of “salami” when she grabbed Scarborough Shoal, a Philippine territory about 124 miles west of Luzon Island.
In 2013, China started reclaiming seven reefs in the Spratly Islands. In one of them, Fiery Cross Reef, China built a runway that could accommodate China’s largest aircraft. Recently, it was reported in the news that China is about to start building a larger runway on Subi Reef. Speculation is also rife that she would build an air and naval base on Scarborough Shoal. It could then be used as a forward operating base when China is ready to break out of the First Island Chain (also known as Inner Island Chain) through the Bashi Channel, a narrow strait between Taiwan and the island of Luzon, that is a major maritime lane for goods destined for Japan. The island chain is a natural land formation that consists of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It is the U.S.’s first line of defense against Chinese expansion.
And once China has broken through the Bashi Channel into the Western Pacific, she would be in a position to attack the U.S. mainland with her long-range submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles. No American city would be safe from such attacks. To the American military planners, this is not an acceptable scenario. But this has been a Chinese dream for the past three decades.
In 1982, Chinese Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the PLA Navy and the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, said that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. To date, China has yet to accomplish taking control of the East and South China Seas. However, the flurry of land reclamation that China is doing in the South China Sea (SCS) would allow her to catch up with Admiral Liu’s timetable.
The Second Island Chain (also known as Outer Island Chain), which runs from Japan through Guam, Marianas Islands, and New Guinea, is the U.S.’s second line of defense. It is no surprise then that the U.S.’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy calls for the deployment of 60% of America’s naval and air forces to the Indo-Asia Pacific region by 2020 to counter Chinese incursion into the Western Pacific waters.
However, with China building artificial islands – and militarizing them — in the SCS, tension is building up between the U.S. and China over China’s reclamation projects. And this is where the U.S. drew the line.
Recently, to China’s surprise, the U.S.’s top diplomat for East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, made it clear that the U.S. is not neutral when it comes to following international law in the SCS and “will come down forcefully to ensure that all parties adhere to the rules.” He clarified that the U.S. “neutrality” in the SCS only extended to the competing claims and not the way in which the disputes were resolved. In my opinion, his clarification seems to suggest that China should participate in the United Nations’ arbitral tribunal that is hearing the Philippines’ assertion before the body that China’s “nine-dash line” is not valid. China’s refusal to participate in the arbitration seems to indicate that she would go to war – if need be — to protect her “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS.
At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers meeting in Kuala Lampur last August 5, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the gathering: “Freedom of navigation and overflight are among the essential pillars of worldwide maritime law.” He then slammed China for building facilities for “military purposes” on the artificial islands, which has raised tensions among the other claimant states. However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that the land reclamation has “already stopped.” But what Wang didn’t say was that construction of fortifications and buildings is now in full swing.
A few days after Wang’s misleading claim, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift told the media: “The ‘angst’ China has generated has led East Asian nations from Australia to Japan to fortify their own defenses and also to seek much deeper US military engagement.” Indeed, China’s militarization of the SCS has started an arms race among her neighbors: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and Australia.
Swift also said that his “Pacific Fleet is larger and more powerful than any national navy outside the US, comprising five aircraft carrier groups, 200 ships and submarines, 2000 aircraft and a quarter of a million sailors and marines. The fleet currently accounts for about half of all US naval assets, moving to 60 per cent.”
Which begs the question: How would China perform in a carrier battle with the U.S.? An article published in Want China Times last August 7 said: “Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian defense analyst, said in his piece written for Moscow-based Military Parade that even as China speeds up the development of its first domestic aircraft carrier, it would still be unable to defeat the United States in a future carrier battle.
“The Russian expert also said that China’s air defense missiles can only intercept between four and five US anti-ship missiles during the first round of the fight. Under US electronic attack, the capability of Chinese air defense systems would drop to between 30% and 70%. In this scenario, the Liaoning would be able to intercept probably no more than three American anti-ship missiles in a confrontation.
“The primary weapon systems of the Liaoning against a US aircraft carrier is the YJ-83K anti-ship missile. Sivkov said that China is unlikely to win a carrier battle against the United States with its current warship qualifications. While US destroyers can fire between 30-40 long-range anti-ship missiles against a Chinese carrier battle group 600 kilometers away, the PLA Navy’s surface combat vessels can only fire 30.
“In a direct confrontation with the US Navy, the chances of the Liaoning not being hit by a US anti-ship missile is only between 20% and 30%. The chances of China bringing serious damage to a US carrier is only between 7% and 15%. Meanwhile, China will lose twice or perhaps even four times the warships, which the United States would. Sivkov said that it is impossible for the PLA Navy to win a carrier battle with the US in near future.”
So, who is afraid of China?