This is the fifth entry in our series on understanding Asia-Pacific sea power.
China’s military is in the nascent stages of becoming an expeditionary force. The country’s anti-piracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden and the use of naval and air assets to support the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya in February and March 2011 have shown real capability in this arena.
What is an expeditionary power? The US Department of Defense defines it as ‘an armed force organized to accomplish a specific objective in a foreign country.’ Additionally, such a force should be able to transport, sustain,and protect itself so that it hasthe freedom toconduct independent missions necessary forthe defense of national interests. The PLA’s gradual but important evolution toward greater expeditionary capability coincides with China’s steadily rising economic presence and the increasing number of Chinese seeking their fortunes in volatile but often fast-growing countries in places like Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, both as employees of large state conglomerates and as private entrepreneurs.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
For now however, due to cost and perception reasons, China’s expeditionary capabilities will most likely be tailored to handling threats to Chinese citizens and economic interests abroad. Foremost among these are non-traditional threats to resource security, such as piracy and terrorism, as well as threats to PRC citizens overseas, such as the internal chaos seen in Libya. Compare this with the US military, which possesses highly sustainable expeditionary capabilities that enable it to fight large wars halfway across the world and simultaneously handle other contingencies. The platforms and operational infrastructure that make high-intensity missions possible can also be scaled down to deal with non-traditional security missions like humanitarian relief after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami or suppression of piracy off Somalia. Therefore, the PLA’s naval, air and ground capabilities for out-of-area operations are likely at least 15 years away—and even further away from achieving the ability to handle the range of missions—from achieving the capabilities the US Department of Defense possesses today.
But the Chinese military is improving its capacity for dealing with smaller-scale threats that do not involve potential forcible entry into a hostile area, but still involve long-range deployments. Improved abilities to show the flag and assist with humanitarian missions and other military operations other than war can potentially allow a limited expeditionary military capacity to yield substantial diplomatic benefits for China.
Missions To Date
The PLA Navy’s anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden, now over two years old, is proving highly successful. The 2010 China Defense White Paper noted that by the end of 2010, the PLA Navy (or PLAN)had dispatched 7 sorties with 18 ship deployments, 16 embarked helicopters,and 490 Special Operation Force(SOF)soldiers. Using means including accompanying escort, area patrol,and onboard escort, the PLAN has safeguarded 3,139 ships sailing under both the Chinese and foreign flags, rescued 29 other ships from pirate attacks and recovered 9 ships released from captivity by pirates.
The Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission, in turn, helped improve the Chinese military’s readiness to take part in the February/March 2011 operation to evacuate more than 30,000 PRC citizens from strife torn Libya. While the majority of these left via chartered ships and aircraft or overland, the operation marked the first time China has deployed military assets to protect PRC citizens overseas. Beijing deployed Xuzhou, one of its most modern missile frigates, and also sent four IL-76 long-range military transport aircraft to help evacuate PRC citizens trapped near Sabha in central Libya.
A key reason Xuzhou was a useful asset in the Libya contingency was because it was already forward deployed as part of China’s anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Senior PLAN and civilian leaders are receiving a firsthand lesson in how useful forward deployed military assets are for a country like China that has increasingly global interests. The anti-piracy missions cracked open the door, but in the wake of the Libya evacuation, there is a strong likelihood that the PLAN will seek to assume a more sustained presence in the Indian Ocean region, perhaps extending toward the Persian Gulf as well.
The PLA Navy led the way on China’s first expeditionary mission, the GoA anti-piracy deployment, but the PLA Air Force has also been gaining experience in long-range operations through increasingly challenging military exercises that are helping it improve relevant capabilities such as aerial refueling and long-range strike. In September 2010 the PLAAF deployedSU-27’s to the Operation Anatolian Eagle exercise in Turkey and the planes reportedly made refueling stops in Pakistan and Iran, according to Hurriyet news. In addition, during the September 2010 Peace Mission multilateral exercise with Kazakhstan and Russia, Chinese J-10s operating from bases in Xinjiang and supported by aerial refueling conducted a 2,000km strike mission with live ordnance against targets in Kazakhstan, according to reports.
Expeditionary military operations require access to regional replenishment and repair facilities. The PLA’s long-range exercises and GoA deployment are boosting its access to regional ports and airfields, which can be used to provide logistical support for future missions. China is most likely to pursue a ‘places, not bases’ model, as the US experience shows that maintaining large fixed bases on foreign soil poses major diplomatic and security challenges. Areas for potential deepening of PLA logistical support and access during times of crisis that merit close watch in coming years include: Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, Djibouti, Salalah (Oman), Aden (Yemen), Gwadar and Karachi (Pakistan), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Mauritius (where Port Louis has sufficient draft to accommodate a large warship), Sittwe (Burma),and Singapore.
As China builds the appropriate diplomatic and logistical infrastructure for supporting expeditionary operations, it is also important to look at the platforms the PLAN and PLAAF are acquiring that could help facilitate expeditionary military operations in theaters ‘beyond Taiwan.’
Certain naval, air, and space platforms will become relevant to potential future expeditionary missions that the PLA might be called upon to perform.
Expeditionary PLA Navy
Large amphibious warfare ships known as landing platform docks (LPDs) and landing helicopter docks (LHDs) are essential to American expeditionary operations because of their versatility, as they can host troops, carry vehicles and hovercraft,and serve as operating bases for heavy helicopters for mission support such as a vertical evacuation of Chinese citizens trapped in a hostile area.
China has now reportedly built two Type 071 LPDs. One is operational and one has been launched, but is still being fitted out, and a third vessel is under construction. Amphibious warfare vessels were instrumental in the US Navy’s responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and China is likely to build several additional LPDs, and perhaps landing helicopter docks (LHDs) as well. China is currently in the process of testing and certifying a domestically built heavy lift helicopter called the AC313 that is basically a reverse-engineered Super Frelon (27 person capacity). The AC313 and follow-on heavy choppers could likely operate from any PLAN LPD or LHD.
China also appears to be rapidly refurbishing the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag; the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) projects that it will be operational by 2012. According to the Asahi Shimbun, China has decided to embark on a national carrier program in which it would build domestically a 50,000-60,000 tonne conventional carrier by 2014 (ONI projects that it will be completed after 2015) and a nuclear-powered carrier by 2020. China certainly faces substantial challenges in equipping a carrier, training pilots in carrier operations,and building a carrier group. That said, the country’s rising defense budget (officially $91.5 billion in 2011) and the experience of domestic shipyards in building increasinglycomplex large commercial ships make it likely that physical construction barriers can be overcome in a reasonable amount of time.
A carrier group would offer immense diplomatic benefits in providing a visible Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, along key sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean,and for humanitarian missions such as the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Several carrier groups would be necessary for persistent presence in these areas, however, to allow for periodic maintenance. Greater focus on carrier battle group development would suggest that Chinese leaders want to bolster their capacity to handle higher-intensity expeditionary missions than would be the case if ship procurement focuses more on LPDs and/or helicopter carriers.
A strong corps of replenishment ships is vital for supporting expeditionary operations, as the PLAN currently has only three long-range replenishment vessels, according to defense news forum HIS Jane’s. For comparison, the US Navy has a fleet of around 30 long-range combat replenishment ships. China could surge production of underway replenishment vessels given the vessels’ relative similarity to commercial ships and China’s large commercial shipbuilding capacity. As such, the replenishment vessel construction rate will be a key barometer of the PLAN’s future expeditionary intentions.
China’s most modern surface combatants can handle the non-traditional security contingencies China is most likely to face, so long as they have adequate replenishment support. For expeditionary operations beyond the South China Sea region, submarines can provide critical security and support for intelligence gathering, making long-range nuclear submarine operations an important topic for PLAN training moving forward. If China makes a stronger push to upgrade its surface combatants’ anti-submarine capability, this could signalthe intent to create expeditionary naval forces suited for high-intensity conflict as well.
Expeditionary PLA Air Force
The PLAAF is likely to press harder for longer-range transport aircraft in the wake of the Libya evacuation, where the 4 IL-76 Candid transports dispatched to Libya performed well. At present, the PLAAF has 14 IL-76s and 25 Y-8 long-range transports, according to Jane’s. This would likely create a capacity shortfall in the event that the PLAAF is called upon to bear the brunt of a large-scale evacuation from an inland country where the PLAN struggles to directly assist.
In the event of an evacuation or intervention operation under hostile conditions, long range, highly capable SU-27, J-11, or SU-30 fighter bombers could provide limited tactical air cover provided they can access a regional airfield such as Khartoum in Sudan. The transit of four PLAAF SU-27s to Turkey for the Anatolian Eagle exercises in September 2010 for example, showed the PLAAF is becoming able to deploy tactical aircraft to areas far from China even without aerial refueling.
Also, Chinese commanders operating in unfamiliar locales will likely clamor for improved intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) efforts to support their missions. Thus, space-based sensors and air-breathing observation platforms like the WJ-600 drone unveiled at the 2010 Zhuhai air show will play a vital role in maximizing commanders’ situational awareness. In 2010, the number of Chinesespace launches equaled the US launch figure for the first time. More importantly, a significant portion of China’s launches involved satellites that are helping to build up a persistent and survivable ISR capability along China’s maritime periphery and beyond.
China has launched 7 Yaogan surveillance satellites since December 2009, suggesting that a more robust spaced-based reconnaissance capability is a high priority for the PRC. China is also building up a constellation of Beidou navigation satellites that will likely give Chinese forces an independent regional navigation and weapons guidance system by 2012, with global capabilities coming into existence around 2020.Lastly, China is reportedly preparing to launch a second Tianlian data link satellite in June 2011, which in conjunction with the existing Tianlian-1 could provide coverage over as much as 75 percent of the Earth’s surface.
China’s Ground Forces
For the missions considered within the timeframe of this analysis, SOF and PLAN Marines are the most relevant ground forces. Their roles might include securing airfields and ports, and protecting evacuation operations. Putting boots on the ground abroad for virtually any mission outside the context of a UN peacekeeping operation is a bridge China has not yet crossed and would likely only be prompted by an extremely serious provocation—such as large-scale anti-Chinese violence in a country with many PRC expats.
China is gradually building up a cadre of soldiers with significant international operating experience gained through participation in UN Peacekeeping operations, many of which take place in locations and security environments like Congo and Sudan, which are similar to areas where the PLA might actually have to help protect an evacuation of Chinese citizens in the future.The country’s 2010 Defense White Paper stated that as of December 2010, it has dispatched 17,390 military personnel to 19 UN peacekeeping missions. In February 2011, China had 1,878 troops participating in UN peacekeeping missions, according to the UN.
The Bottom Line
China’s expeditionary military capabilities are currently limited, but set to grow significantly in coming years, as will Beijing’s propensity to use them to protect PRC citizens and economic interests abroad. While the PLA is decades from having US-style expeditionary forces capable of sustained high-intensity combat (if it even wants to go that route), the potential for more regular and capable Chinese military deployments to distant portions of the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean,and Africa is now real.
Diplomatic engagement needs to incorporate discussions to assess how China intends to use its growing power projection abilities and also explore ways to de-conflict Chinese expeditionary operations and those of other militaries in strategic regions like Africa and the Middle East. China’s developing expeditionary capabilities make it a more useful partner for cooperation on non-traditional security issues and the United Statesshould try to increase discussions on this topic with its Chinese partners, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums.
Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former commodity investment analyst and research fellow in the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.