The South China Sea on the “Day after Taiwan”
The South China Sea offers an ideal case study for future conflict off Chinese shores. Chinese and Western strategists once forecast that the Pacific Ocean constituted the most likely theater of twenty-first-century maritime competition between the United States and China. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the modern PLA Navy’s founding father, espoused an eastward-facing strategy, perhaps stemming from China’s preoccupation with a possible Taiwan contingency. Even Liu, however, included the South China Sea among the “near seas” where the Chinese navy must gird itself to prosecute active-defense operations. And indeed, the South China Sea is a more probable locus for contingencies pitting the PLA against the U.S. Navy. Beijing’s claim to “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty over most of that expanse, its construction and arming of artificial islands, and its heavy-handed conduct toward Southeast Asian neighbors have shifted the center of gravity for high-seas competition southward.
The South China Sea is China’s crucial gateway to the Indian Ocean. At least four strategic challenges beckon the attention of Chinese strategists southward. First and foremost, Taiwan, at the northern edge of the sea, continues to obsess China’s leadership. A formal declaration of independence or a Taiwanese breach of a Chinese redline such as constitutional reform remains the most likely casus belli for Beijing. But the cross-strait dispute is no longer the all-consuming issue it once was. If it has not already, China will soon gain the confidence to start looking past Taiwan to other pursuits in Southeast and South Asia.
Satisfactory settlement of affairs in the Taiwan Strait will free up Chinese resources and energies, advance the cause of national unification, and break through Dean Acheson’s island-chain perimeter. To borrow from General Douglas MacArthur, regaining the island would also give the PLA its own offshore—and unsinkable (if also immobile)—aircraft carrier and submarine tender. Moreover, if China occupies Taiwan, which Admiral Ernest King called “the cork in the bottle of the South China Sea,” Chinese shipping bound to or from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or the Mediterranean Sea can reach Chinese seaports unmolested.
The second strategic challenge perplexing Chinese scholars and top officials is the “Malacca dilemma” or “Malacca predicament.” Former president Hu Jintao first articulated this strategic problem, which entails an attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to close the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Strait to Chinese shipping as an indirect riposte during a Taiwan conflict or some other Pacific imbroglio.
Assuring free passage through the sea lines of communication linking the Persian Gulf region and Africa with Chinese seaports—in particular through the Strait of Malacca—has thus taken on surpassing importance to China’s communist regime. The uninterrupted flow of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials across the bodies of water south and southwest of the mainland—the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—will occupy an increasingly prominent place in China’s maritime calculus. This emerging energy security imperative suggests that tracking longer-term Chinese intentions and grand strategy in southern waters constitutes an urgent task for the United States.
Third, China has staked claim to the waters, air, and islands of most of the South China Sea at its neighbors’ expense. Indeed, the National People’s Congress in effect wrote China’s claims into domestic law in 1992. In 2009 the government submitted a map to the United Nations delineating its claims. A “nine-dashed line” enclosing an estimated 80–90 percent of the South China Sea bounds the area where China claims indisputable sovereignty. At its most basic, sovereignty means physical control of space within an area on a map. What the sovereign says there is the law, and others obey. Unsurprisingly, China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and attempts to enforce those claims have generated considerable tension.
Both national sentiment and the region’s value as a maritime thoroughfare animate Beijing’s policy, as do the undersea resources said to be found around the many islands to which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have lodged claims. The seas are also a growing source of nutrition as a Chinese citizenry that enjoys rising disposable incomes turns its appetite to seafood. Even cartographers have joined the fray. One laments that the landmass of China resembles a rooster, an image unworthy of China’s majesty; but including the sea areas China has claimed gives the nation an appealing shape on the map—a torch. “Chinese map,” proclaims the mapmaker, “you are the collected emotion and wisdom of the Chinese people, their coagulated blood and raging fire, symbolic of their power and personality, the embodiment of their worth and spirit.”
This conveys not only the region’s importance for Chinese national dignity but also the interdependence between the sea and Chinese economic development. Beijing has sought to give effect to domestic law as it amasses dominant sea power, relying on a maritime militia and a modern coast guard backed up by the PLA Navy. Southeast Asia’s coastal states have not yet determined how to uphold their rights and privileges under the law of the sea in the face of an increasingly bellicose China.
Fourth, it has become apparent that undersea warfare imparts momentum to China’s southward maritime turn. In April 2008 Jane’s Intelligence Review disclosed that the PLA had constructed an impressive naval base complete with underground pens for fleet SSBNs, at Sanya on Hainan Island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The news prompted a flurry of speculation among strategic thinkers in the West and Asia. “Must India be anxious?” asked one Indian commentator.
Many countries should be. To borrow a metaphor Chinese officials use, the Sanya base gives Beijing the first of China’s “two eyes” at sea—Taiwan being the other. Metaphors aside, basing SSBNs in the South China Sea would let the PLA Navy outflank U.S. and Japanese ASW efforts in northeast Asia while enabling the Chinese submarine force to operate on exterior lines. Sanya gives the navy a forward base not only for SSBNs but for attack submarines, aircraft, and surface units as well, projecting China’s combat reach outward in much the same way Taiwan would do in the Pacific Ocean. The artificial island redoubts to Hainan’s south have helped Beijing consolidate its control over this offshore preserve.
The South China Sea, in short, offers an ideal theater for the PLA to fight on tactically exterior lines while the United States operates along strategically exterior lines. The Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines, has taken on new prominence now that operational Chinese units are stationed at Sanya. Regaining Taiwan would expedite Chinese military access to the strait—its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. In a day-after-Taiwan scenario, having emplaced PLA air and sea forces on the island, China would extend its reach seaward while occupying a commanding position opposite Luzon.
This positioning would render China’s logic of dispersed attack even more compelling. PLA forces could vector in attacks on U.S. Navy task forces not only from PLAN units at sea but also from sites on the mainland and, just as important, from Hainan and Taiwan—its twin offshore aircraft carriers and submarine tenders, to borrow MacArthur’s metaphor. Once armed with antiship missiles, the artificial islands could lend additional firepower to the mix, further complicating the tactical picture for U.S. commanders. By forcing the United States into perimeter defense, the PLA could open up promising tactical vistas for itself. It could feint in the South China Sea, for instance, stretching American defenses and situational awareness to the south while staging a breakout to the north, through the narrow passages piercing the Ryukyu Islands or the Japanese archipelago itself.
Taken together, this strategy adds up to an effort similar to the one the United States mounted in Mahan’s day, when the U.S. Navy set out to establish local ascendancy over superior European navies in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These were expanses of overriding economic and military importance to a rising United States that had fixed its gaze on Asia and Pacific markets and bases. Consequently, for U.S. naval commanders, revisiting U.S. maritime history while monitoring how China manages its “Caribbean” could supply a harbinger of future Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Strategic Preference #1: Dispersed Sea Denial
To return to Wayne Hughes’ analytical template, what are China’s strategic preferences for naval warfare? How will China apply its panoply of new hardware to achieve the goal of sea denial? Following Hughes’ three determinants of tactical effectiveness, Chinese defenders will attempt to disrupt U.S. scouting, outrange U.S. weaponry, and exploit defects in U.S. fleet tactics, keeping American commanders off balance. Consonant with Mao’s injunction to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers rather than mash them all, PLA defenders will concentrate on individual U.S. units or small formations that find themselves remote from mutual support. They will operate along tactically exterior lines, concentrating firepower in space and time at the last minute to overpower American defenses. In short, they will fight according to the Maoist way of war, defeating a stronger antagonist piecemeal.
By playing up tactical victories in the world press, Beijing can hope to discourage the American people, peel off ambivalent U.S. allies such as Japan or Australia, and collapse the overall U.S. effort. Western analysts must monitor the PLA for inventive uses of China’s tactical and geostrategic advantages. Some representative weapon systems useful for dispersed but integrated attacks would include the following.
Antiship Cruise Missiles
The PLA has plowed major effort and resources into cruise missile procurement and development. Antiship missiles can be fired from ships, aircraft, and surface batteries, forcing U.S. Navy antiair defenders to cope with multiple threat axes. For instance, the fast, agile SS-N-22 Moskit (known in U.S. naval circles as the Sunburn) carried on board PLA Navy Sovremennyy-class DDGs has excellent prospects even against the U.S. Navy’s Aegis combat system, the latest in American technical wizardry and the system it was designed to penetrate. A decade ago a RAND report situated SS-N-22 and SS-N-27 antiship missiles at the heart of China’s strategy for a Taiwan contingency, strongly suggesting that the United States would find itself on the losing end of a cross-strait encounter in 2020. The YJ-18 missile now entering service boasts a range of 290 nautical miles—about four times that of the Harpoon, the standard antiship weapon in the U.S. Navy surface fleet for now. Ships carrying the YJ-18 could get in their licks long before U.S. warships could respond. Such weaponry, in short, makes an ideal candidate for orthodox or unorthodox antiship attack.
Antiship Ballistic Missiles
In 2010 Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, announced that the PLA’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) had attained “initial operational capability,” meaning the ASBM had made its operational debut while still undergoing testing and refinement. The DF-21D boasts a range of 1,500–2,000 kilometers and can reportedly strike at moving ships on the high seas. In a 2015 military parade in Beijing the PLA displayed the DF-26, a ballistic missile with the range to strike Guam. The DF-26 reportedly has an ASBM variant, projecting the reach of Chinese anti-access defenses 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers offshore. If they live up to their hype, the DF-21D and DF-26 will expand the operating grounds for China’s fortress fleet immensely.
A China able to strike effectively beyond the second island chain with sufficient numbers of ASBMs could hope to replicate Imperial Japan’s strategy, which aimed at reducing the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line far out in the Pacific as a precursor to a decisive engagement in Asian waters. Unlike Japanese forces, however, the PLA could mount such a strategy without bothering to seize and fortify Pacific islands. A working ASBM capability would signal that the PLA can act along exterior lines against U.S. naval forces across far greater distances than once thought possible. It could execute a Maoist strategy on a region-wide scale.
Stealth fighter/attack aircraft such as the PLA Air Force J-20 would make an ideal implement for unorthodox attack against U.S. airborne-early-warning and tanker aircraft. The J-20 sports a two-thousand-kilometer combat radius. Flights of elusive J-20s could strike at the U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance and logistics capability, blinding American aviators while denying warplanes the fuel they need to sustain flight operations over the western Pacific. In short, PLA stealth aviators could encumber U.S. air power without fighting a major air battle against cutting-edge U.S. F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. That is the very definition of an unorthodox attack.
And it would be well aimed. Showcased in Afghanistan, in two wars against Iraq, and in other conflicts of the past two decades, the modern American way of war is premised on winning the contest for information supremacy at the outbreak of war. U.S. forces have prevailed in large part because superior technology has given them a “common operating picture” of conditions in the battle space that no opponent can match. Airborne sensors detect and target enemy aircraft, ships, or ground vehicles from afar. Jammers and antiradiation missiles incapacitate enemy sensors attempting to gather data on and target U.S. assets. These tactics effectively paralyze U.S. adversaries during the opening phases of a military campaign, paving the way for an even more important battlefield condition: air supremacy.
J-20 or J-31 stealth jets could seriously degrade U.S. scouting effectiveness, one of Hughes’ chief determinants of tactical success. Weapons range means little without the ability to find and target enemy forces at long distances. Since the dawn of carrier warfare, U.S. maritime strategy has seen command of the air as a prerequisite for surface fleet operations. An operation near Chinese shores would be no different. If Chinese pilots struck down Airborne Warning and Control System or E-2D early-warning planes, they would wholly or partially nullify the U.S. edge in information warfare, slowing down and complicating U.S. aviators’ efforts to command the skies. In doing so they would blunt U.S. offensive action while exposing U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, to air and missile counterstrikes.
A robust Chinese stealth air fleet would oblige U.S. commanders to devote energy and air assets to securing the skies. For instance, commanders might find themselves forced to assign scarce fighters to escort early-warning or tanker planes, taking the escorts out of the major fight and thus diluting U.S. combat power. Even if PLA stealth aviation remains inferior to its American counterpart it could open the way for PLA offensive-defensive operations in Mao Zedong’s sense. Debilitating the foe would boost the PLA’s chances of denying maritime command.
The PLAN submarine fleet has aroused growing concern in U.S. defense circles, judging from scholarly commentary and the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power. Lethal, stealthy diesel-electric submarines such as Russian-built Kilos and indigenous Yuans or Songs can prowl China’s offshore contested zone while nuclear boats range farther afield, cueing PLA commanders as U.S. forces approach or launching nuisance attacks on the high seas. Armed with wake-homing torpedoes, even diesel boats can compel American ships to take radical evasive maneuvers. The torpedoes can distract and hamper a ship’s combat team while the PLA bombards the fleet with antiship ballistic or cruise missiles. Subsurface combat, in short, compounds an already wicked tactical problem.64 It could help dishearten U.S. forces or impose such costs that U.S. officials abjure the effort to pierce China’s contested zone, brightening China’s prospects for successful sea denial.
To sum up, if the PLA manages to force U.S. forces to fixate on any single domain—surface, subsurface, or aerial—it can then pose new challenges from the other domains. Nuclear and diesel attack submarines, missile-armed fast patrol craft such as the PLAN’s Type 022 Houbei, or “assassin’s mace” systems like minefields make good adjuncts to more traditional systems like ASBMs and shore-based aircraft. PLA commanders could combine and recombine these systems to dizzy American defenders. In a sense, then, we are witnessing a merger of time-honored strategic concepts: jeune école–style combatants wage war aggressively against high-end intruders, shore artillery lends fire support on a grand scale, and an ultramodern fortress fleet prowls the sea within reach of these supporting arms. Strategies of the weak are coming into their own.
A well-designed Chinese force package would impose a three-dimensional threat on U.S. forces, launching unorthodox and orthodox attacks along multiple vectors. The more stresses the Chinese can impose, the less likely U.S. forces will be to venture landward of the island chains or into the South China Sea. If China can even partially cancel out U.S. technologies that manage the fog of war, it can severely curtail U.S. forces’ freedom of maneuver along Asian coastlines—access the U.S. Navy has long taken for granted. In short, the combined effect of multiaxis assaults could induce U.S. forces to operate farther from Chinese shores, helping China achieve its goal of sea denial in the China seas.
One caveat is worth appending. Despite the bleak tenor of our commentary, we are not maintaining that these capabilities, alone or combined, will give China a decisive edge in littoral warfare, let alone outright military superiority over the United States. The PLA Navy is not some superhuman force. It remains a relative newcomer to naval warfare. While Beijing divulges few details about budgets or weapons acquisitions, the PLAN is not exempt from the cost constraints familiar to military services worldwide. It must surmount technological hurdles after starting from behind. Officers and sailors must take their ships to sea for sustained intervals to refine their seamanship and tactical acumen. When the PLA Navy will equal the U.S. Navy in material and human terms—if ever—remains an open question.
Moreover, the PLAN would have to coordinate closely with the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to prosecute the joint campaign we are describing, so as to amplify the tactical effects of multidimensional attacks against opponent forces. Interoperability and interservice cooperation—skills that take years of practice to hone—would be at a premium. Whether PLA combat arms are up to these and kindred challenges remains an open question.
Certainly the PLA will press the operational and tactical advantages it possesses while striving to overcome its lingering shortcomings. Beijing can hope to drive up the costs of entry into waters and skies it cares about, deterring or hindering U.S. involvement in Asian conflicts. If successful, it will have fulfilled its defensive strategic aims. If the PLA can deny U.S. forces the ability to dictate events, it will have attained the most important goal of sea denial: seizing local control of sea and sky long enough to realize operational and strategic goals. The approach we have posited here comports with the experiences of the past forty-plus years of naval war. From Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles in 1967, to Argentina’s sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982, to Iraq’s Exocet attack on USS Stark in 1987, to Hezbollah’s crippling of the Israeli corvette Spear with a C-802 surface-to-surface missile in 2006, experience demonstrates that an inferior yet determined navy can hurt a superior one.
The Chinese have afforded these historical case studies close scrutiny. They have learned that the weak can force the strong to change their behavior even without winning outright. In each incident, a single missile hit brought about major tactical effects. In the cases of Eilat and Sheffield, a missile sank a ship altogether. Or missile strikes can score a “mission kill,” putting a ship’s combat-systems suite out of action while preventing its crew from accomplishing its mission. They can disable the stricken vessel. Sometimes, though, a missile is not required. USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli suffered far-reaching damage from crude, cheap Iraqi sea mines during the late 1980s and early 1990s, furnishing an even more striking example of how sea denial works. Thus, tactics involving dispersed, multifaceted attacks promise the PLA a handsome return on a modest investment. Such tactics make sense according to sound principles of naval warfare as elaborated by Wayne Hughes. And they fit with Chinese strategic and operational traditions. If what comes natural works, it only makes sense for China to do it.
Strategic Preference #2: Cut Off the U.S. Navy’s “Fingers” One by One
PLA naval planners cannot count on defeating the United States by crippling or sinking a small, though politically significant, portion of the U.S. fleet. The strategy might work. It might elevate the costs of fighting China above the value Washington assigns the object at stake. Or it might not. America could prove less morally flabby than expected. Chinese strategists may draw a lesson from the Pacific war, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the 9/11 terror attacks: do not discount America’s will to fight. Hideki Tojo’s Japan, Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Mao Zedong’s China, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda all calculated that the surprise, speed, and shock of initial successful campaigns would stun America into submission. All were wrong.
Prudence thus demands that Beijing consider the what-ifs. What should the PLA do if its sea-denial strategy fails to drive U.S. naval forces from important sea areas? Its most obvious fallback would be to keep doing what works. Picking off U.S. warships and formations piecemeal might eventually create a favorable environment for sea denial—so long as U.S. commanders kept playing into Chinese hands and presenting a “cooperative adversary.”
Successive minor victories at sea would resemble the battles Mao’s Red Army fought on strategically interior but tactically exterior lines against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. Sequential-attack tactics would let the PLA whittle the U.S. Navy down to size over time, perhaps fulfilling its tactical and operational aims on the logic sketched previously. At a minimum, the tactics would gradually tilt the military balance toward China, enhancing the PLA’s prospects for a decisive counteroffensive—as Mao foretold. To be sure, this presupposes that Beijing has great confidence in its ability to manage escalation in nautical warfare. It behooves U.S. naval planners to keep tabs on Chinese strategic discourses, gauging whether PLA strategists entertain such confidence.
In short, Wayne Hughes’ second tactical scenario—sequential attack—would likely rank second in China’s hierarchy of naval tactics. The PLA may disperse offensive tactical strikes in time as well as space.