… of Making You Live in Interesting Times
A key feature of a “Great Game,” maritime or otherwise, is that there are multiple players. Russia has been the most overtly active in the past year or two. But China’s level of activity has been steadily increasing for the last decade, and with the events of 2008, promises only to increase.
China has no history – yet — as a global maritime power. But she is laboring diligently to become a regional maritime power, building her navy, piling up more operating days for it than any navy except the US Navy, and developing a network of Chinese-improved potential naval bases that today stretches across South Asia to Pakistan.
In 2008, Chinese submarines conducted twelve “long-range” patrols (a characterization that is a bit different for China’s navy as opposed to America’s, Britain’s, or Russia’s) – twice as many as in 2007, and the highest number of such patrols China’s navy has ever performed. For the Chinese navy (or the People’s Liberation Army Navy – PLAN – as it is designated in professional writing), long-range patrols are known to extend only as far as the southern portion of the South China Sea, the eastern East China Sea, and into the Western Pacific Ocean, just past the southern Japanese Ryukyu Island chain. This limited patrol scope has, of course, given the PLAN submarine force opportunities to surprise US carrier strikes groups, but also produced public expressions of concern from Japan in 2008, when the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) noted an increase in Chinese submarine activity close to Japan’s territorial waters.
2008 also saw the
first visit of a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to a newly-developed facility at Sanya naval base on Hainan Island. Of particular note, and unquestionably not by mere accident, the submarine in question was China’s new Type 094, or “Jin” class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The Jin was pierside at what is assessed to be a naval demagnetizing facility, which, as the FAS report points out, is China’s first – representing a capability the PLAN does not even have at its main Jianggezhuang submarine base on the mainland (at the Qingdao complex in the North Sea Fleet). Demagnetizing facilities are used to reduce the magnetic signature of the submarine, shortly before deployment, to make it less susceptible to mines, and less detectable to certain underwater sensors. Surface ships also undergo demagnetization (also referred to as “deperming” or degaussing). Deperming Is a routine pre-deployment checklist item for blue-water navies; it must be completed before long-range deployments, since magnetization rebuilds over time. That China would install her navy’s first such facility on Hainan Island, at a substantial distance from her main bases in the North and East Sea Fleets – and so conveniently to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the Strait of Malacca — cannot fail to seem like a very pointed indicator of China’s intentions for flexing her navy. Commentators focused last year on the political signal of the Jin SSBN deployment to Hainan Island, but the seemingly pedestrian roll-out of the demagnetization facility is at least as informative, and perhaps more.
China’s naval acquisition programs are routinely reported in the Western media (although this Asia Times piece from a year ago, outlining Beijing’s intention to build three aircraft carrier groups, mentions a very real tendency of the Western press to miss key news items). What is not so well covered is China’s strategy of improving key foreign port facilities across South Asia, with the intention (assessed by US and regional intelligence agencies) of using them to support naval operations. This effort, dubbed the “String of Pearls” strategy, has been underway since the mid-1990s, when Indian and Western intelligence began evaluating Chinese activity in Burma as the development of facilities for the PLAN. Google searches will turn up a number of websites where it is passionately asserted that Chinese port development in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan is NOT intended to support China’s navy; words like “bunk!” and “fabrication” and “fantasy” are common. However, the US Joint Forces Command, in its recent, widely-publicized 2008 outline of the expected “Joint Operating Environment” in the coming years, affirmed that the “String of Pearls” assessment is that of US intelligence, as well as Jane’s, Aviation Week, and the major news organs of Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, and India.
Although the Joint Operating Environment (JOE) assessment does not appear to endorse this analysis, reporting both new and persistent suggests China may also aspire to perform improvements on ports in the Maldives and in Indonesia, which she may want to have available to support naval forces operating forward. Indian officials in November, after the recent elections in the Maldives, rejected the prospect of Chinese naval access to a facility in the port of Marao, although this longstanding possibility (first reported as an official agreement in 1999) cannot be decisively discounted.
The possibility of China being able to use port facilities for her navy in Indonesia, however, represents an even graver concern for the United States. For at least four decades we have predicated our Asian maritime strategy on a presence in the Strait of Malacca (US port and maintenance agreements with Singapore), and on guaranteeing that the Strait of Malacca, or SOM, remains open to all, with no influence exercised by a regional power with potentially exclusionary intentions.
If the India-Defence information referenced at the rense.com website (above, “Indonesia” link) is accurate (I was unable to locate the original India-Defence.com post), China’s intention is to gain basing privileges on “one of the Indonesian islands close to the Malacca Strait,” which may mean Sumatra, or a small island immediately off Singapore. China’s approach, in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, has been to invest in infrastructure in less-developed ports, which would, at the very least, indicate a likely interest in the relatively undeveloped eastern coast of Sumatra, rather than the northern and western, where Sumatra’s major ports are located.
Japan, notably, is reported to have a port development deal with Indonesia that includes the island of Batam, on the Singapore side of the SOM. China, with longstanding cultural ties to the Chinese population of Indonesia – a major factor in the Indonesian oil and gas and maritime industries, on Sumatra as well as the other islands – can certainly be expected to seek her own piece of the Indonesian development pie. It may well come off as overly suspicious to imagine that every commercial enterprise China enters on has military or strategic significance; but of course, there are enough examples of this pattern to justify vigilance and concern.
Concern is particularly warranted given recent diplomatic overtures between Beijing and Jakarta, which seem to have turned up the warmth a notch between two nations that had experienced a mutual chill over the previous decade. The December 2008 meeting of the two countries’ vice-leaders went almost unnoticed in the West, but affirmed agreement on a rather unusually ambitious array of joint projects and interests – indeed, a laundry list of agreements that, though generic, is longer than we often see Asian nations publicize on such occasions. And at this end of South Asia, as well as the other, we see hints of a Great Game popping up, with China’s diplomatic and economic initiatives coming about a year after Russia and Indonesia inked a billion-dollar weapons deal in late 2007. (The additional readings at the end of the linked story are worth checking out as well. It seems far-fetched only to Americans to deduce that China and Russia are competing for influence at a key maritime chokepoint, as well as for wedges into Indonesia’s oil and gas industry; to Asian nations it seems glaringly obvious.)
China’s deployment of the PLAN antipiracy task force to the Gulf of Aden, on 26 December 2008, capped off her navy’s busiest year. Until this deployment, it was possible to remain complacent about the import of Chinese-improved naval facilities across South Asia, and Chinese activity that edges closer and closer, from both sides, to the Strait of Malacca. The days of China’s industrial activism abroad being merely a theoretical strategic concern are clearly drawing to a close, however. Even if the currently deployed task force makes no use of Chinese-improved ports before it returns to homebase, the precedent of an operational deployment – at the extreme edge of the region — is now, finally, set. The task force may, as navies do, make a series of port calls on its way back to China, after its mission is completed. Whether Beijing feels free to send the force to Gwadar, Pakistan, or perhaps arrange a visit in the Maldives, will serve as an indication of how much attention the Chinese think we are paying. And that, in a nutshell, is the most important aspect of the entire situation.