China Set for Naval Hegemony
Image Credit: US Navy

China Set for Naval Hegemony


On the night of March 26 the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy corvette patrolling in the Yellow Sea, mysteriously erupted in a cataclysmic explosion and sank to the bottom. The ship was just off Baengnyeong Island, near the Northern Limit Line, which is the armistice separation line between North and South Korea. Of the 104 crew on board, only 58 survived. Salvage operations confirm the ship was struck by a North Korean heavy torpedo armed with a 200 kg warhead.

Exchange the cast of characters from North and South Korea to China and the United States, and the sneak attack on the Cheonan is exactly the sort of nightmare scenario envisioned in an analysis I wrote for the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Orbis—’How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015‘.

The article foretells a devastating Chinese surprise attack using a newly-developed anti-ship ballistic missile against the Yokosuka-based nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The parallels between the 2015 thought experiment in Orbis and the Cheonan disaster are eerie. In the hypothetical scenario, China shoots an advanced DF-21 ASBM into the American aircraft carrier, and then denies it, leaving the United States in the same quandary that Seoul now finds itself. Any defensive response risks a major war while bolstering North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

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The prospects for a Chinese surprise attack are, of course, debatable. The greater issue, however, is how China has invested decades in a patient and aggressive campaign to slowly push other countries out of the East China Sea and South China Sea. The US Navy is the main target, as it’s the largest obstacle to Beijing’s strategy. The result: a well-coordinated campaign of legal, political and military pressure—and sometimes aggression—to gradually bring the littoral seas under Chinese domination.

Beginning in 2000, for example, China initiated increasingly provocative warship and aircraft maneuvers, and even started using armed oceanographic ships and fisheries enforcement vessels to try to disrupt routine US military survey missions in the East China Sea. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet aggressively intercepted a US Navy propeller-driven EP-3 surveillance aircraft 75 miles from Hainan Island. The fighter jet collided with the US aircraft, resulting in the loss of the jet and pilot. The heavily damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing on the island. In 2003, a similarly aggressive intercept occurred.

In another of the many instances of harassment of US naval and air forces, on March 7 of 2009, Chinese maritime forces stalked the USNS Impeccable ocean surveillance ship. Working in tandem with an intelligence ship, an oceanographic ship and a fisheries enforcement vessel, two commercial cargo ships crossed the bow of Impeccable, stopping directly in front of the ship. President Obama dispatched the USS Chung-Hoon to provide armed escort for the surveillance ship. In response, China sent its largest and most modern ocean surveillance patrol ship, the Yuzheng 311, into the South China Sea to assert China’s ‘rights and interests.’

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