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Power Plays Across the First Island Chain: China's Lone Carrier Group Has a Busy December

 
 

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s (PLAN) sole operational carrier group has had a busy Christmas weekend.

After conducting exercises in both the Bohai and Yellow Seas, the Liaoning, China’s sole carrier, accompanied by five other PLAN vessels, made its way south and — perhaps more significantly — east.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense released a statement acknowledging that its surveillance aircraft tracked six vessels in total — including the Liaoning — approach the Miyako Strait on December 25.

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According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the Liaoning was accompanied by the PLAN Linyi and PLAN Yantai, Jiangkai-II-class (Type 054A) frigates with the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet, and the PLAN Zhengzhou, PLAN Haikou, and PLAN Changsha, Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyers. The  Changsha and Haikou are part of the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet while the Zhengzhou is part of the East Sea Fleet.

For the first time ever, the Liaoning, on Sunday, entered the Western Pacific, transiting the Miyako Strait — a strategically significant international waterway south of the major Japanese island of Okinawa. The Liaoning‘s current training expedition is the first to incorporate live-fire drills including the carrier’s air wing.

After spending some time in the Western Pacific, the Liaoning group navigated southward, entering the strategically significant Bashi Channel, which runs between Taiwan and the Philippine island of Luzon, separating the South China Sea from the Western Pacific.

According to the Taiwanese Defense Ministry, which observed the Chinese carrier’s passage through the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel, the Liaoning passed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan’s southernmost point. The Liaoning group, as of Monday, December 26, is in the South China Sea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying cautioned against making too much of the Liaoning group’s activities. “Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China’s,” she noted.

Despite Hua’s statement, there’s plenty of context — both old and new — that serves to underline just how significant the Liaoning‘s passage into the Western Pacific is.

Regular Diplomat readers may recall that the PLAN and People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) have given particular attention to the Bashi Channel and Miyako Strait in recent months. I wrote on incidents prompting Japanese concern in September, November, and earlier in December this year. (The PLAN held an exercise in the channel in the summer of 2015 as well.)

None of this was accidental. Since at least the 1980s, under the strategic tutelage of former PLA Navy commander and Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Liu Huaqing, Chinese military planners have placed great importance on being able to dominate the geographical features that comprise what strategists refer to as Asia’s “first island chain” — a string of islands running from the Kuril Islands off Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, to Japan, to Taiwan, to the Philippines, and ending in Indonesia.

China’s interest in being able to successfully project power across the first island chain has grown more acute in recent years. In particular, last year, its 2015 defense white paper emphasized Beijing’s interest in a more global and expeditionary role for its navy:

It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation[…]

We’ve seen the ideas outlined in that white paper expressed elsewhere, such as in Beijing’s construction of its first overseas military base in Djibouti and its conduct of submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean. Closer to home, Beijing needs its “modern maritime military force structure” to be able to successfully traverse and operate across the first island chain.

The Lioaning‘s role in enabling a more global and expeditionary PLAN may not be as great as some originally thought. As I noted earlier this month, while the Liaoning is China’s only operational carrier at the moment and was boldly declared “combat-ready” in November, it won’t form the basis of China’s maritime power projection — at least not by itself.

Beijing is making steady progress on its first indigenously designed and constructed carrier that will likely play a more significant part in its naval power projection. Moreover, a second planned home-grown carrier could incorporate more advanced technologies enabling high sortie rates for the PLAN’s carrier-based Shenyang J-15 fighters, including a catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch system.

The Liaoning, in the meantime, may serve primarily as an important training platform for Chinese sailors and naval aviators to rack up hours of experience in non-littoral carrier operations.

A refurbished and retrofitted Admiral Kuznetsov-class Soviet Navy carrier, the Liaoning won’t be single-handedly enabling far-flung military victories for China anytime soon. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

The PLAN’s clear interest in mastering control of the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel — including with the Liaoning — suggests that Chinese naval patrols in the Western Pacific, potentially pushing up against significant U.S. territories, including Hawaii and Guam, may be forthcoming in the 2020s and beyond. (China maritime watcher Ryan Martinson flagged a fascinating anonymous op-ed in China’s hawkish Global Times that makes a case for continued operations “in America’s near seas.”)

Finally, given the timing of the Liaoning‘s passage across the first island chain and entry into the South China Sea, one is inclined to ponder if China is sending a message to the incoming U.S. administration of Donald J. Trump.

After all, the U.S. president-elect’s transition has already been fairly eventful in terms of U.S.-China ties. Aside from the PLAN unlawfully seizing a U.S. oceanographic glider earlier this month in one of China’s most brazen acts in the South China Sea against a U.S. vessel in recent memory, Trump’s unprecedented phone call with Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen earlier in the transition also raised the U.S.-China stakes. Moreover, unrelated to Trump, reports earlier in December established China’s emplacement of point defense systems on its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, in violation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2015 pledge not to militarize the Spratly Islands.

Given all I’ve outlined above, it may be a mistake to see the Liaoning‘s transit of the first island chain as a tactical move designed to signal forthcoming Chinese aggression to the incoming U.S. administration. In the weeks leading up the U.S. election, both the PLAN and PLAAF had carried out significant exercises in the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel.

However, for the incoming U.S. administration, the Liaoning‘s activities in December will be read as an important signal of intensifying Chinese assertiveness in East Asia — and not without reason. Per the latest available reports, the Liaoning was still in the northern South China Sea, but is traveling southwest, potentially toward the Spratly Islands.

A show of force involving the Liaoning group in the Spratly Islands would send a troubling signal to the incoming U.S. administration and emphasize Chinese intent to project power from the South China Sea, where it possesses four airstrips capable of accommodating military aircraft.

Come what may, most signs point to a deterioration in U.S.-China ties under the incoming U.S. administration and the Liaoning group’s activities in December suggest that China — even if just realizing long-planned milestones in power projection — won’t be the first to back down.

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