In an effort to underscore its importance to Asia, geostrategist Nicholas Spykman once described it as the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean.’ More recently, it has been dubbed the ‘Chinese Caribbean.’ And, just as Rome and the United States have sought control over the Mediterranean and Caribbean, China now seeks dominance over the South China Sea.
It’s clear that China’s claims and recent assertiveness have increased tensions in this key body of water. Yet while most attention has focused on Beijing’s appetite for fishery and energy resources, from a submariner’s perspective, the semi-closed sea is integral to China’s nuclear strategy. And without understanding the nuclear dimension of the South China Sea disputes, China’s maritime expansion makes little sense.
Possessing a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent is a priority for China's military strategy. China’s single Type 092, or Xia-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, equipped with short-range JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), has never conducted a deterrent patrol from the Bohai Sea since its introduction in the 1980s. However, China is on the verge of acquiring credible second-strike capabilities with the anticipated introduction of JL-2 SLBMs (with an estimated range of 8,000 kilometres) coupled with DF-31 and DF-31A road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In addition, China plans to introduce up to five Type 094, or Jin-class, SSBNs outfitted with the JL-2 missiles, while constructing an underwater submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
It’s clear, then, that China is making every effort to keep the South China Sea off limits, just as the Soviet Union did in the Sea of Okhotsk during the Cold War. Back then, the Soviet Union turned to SSBNs as insurance against US capabilities to destroy land-based ICBMs. The need to secure its insurance force from attacks, and the need for effective command and control, meant that Soviet SSBNs had to be deployed close to home, with longer-range missiles to be used to strike the continental United States. In addition to the Barents Sea, Moscow prioritized making the Sea of Okhotsk a safe haven for SSBNs by improving the physical defences of the Kuril Islands and reinforcing the Pacific Fleet based at Vladivostok. The Soviet Pacific Fleet deployed 100 submarines, combined with 140 surface warships, including a Kiev-class light aircraft carrier, to defend its insurance force in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Likewise, China needs to secure its forces in the South China Sea and modify its maritime strategy and doctrine accordingly. Currently, the primary wartime missions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy are: 1) securing sea approaches to Taiwan; 2) conducting operations in the western Pacific to deny enemy forces freedom of action; 3) protecting Chinese sea lines of communication; and 4) interdicting enemy lines of communication. With the introduction of the Type 094, protecting Chinese SSBNs will become another primary mission, and this mission will require China to kill enemy strategic antisubmarine forces and end the resistance of other claimants in the South China Sea. Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities, especially quieter nuclear-powered attack submarines, can be used to counter enemy forward antisubmarine warfare operations. China’s aircraft carriers, when operational, will be deployed in the South China Sea to silence the neighbouring claimants.
This strategy dates back almost two decades, to a time when China began encircling the South China Sea to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines in 1991. China reasserted ‘historical’ claims over all the islets, including the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, and 80 percent of the 3.5 million km2 body of water along the nine-dotted U-shaped line, despite having no international legal ground to do so. Those islets can be used as air and sea bases for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, and as base points for claiming the deeper part of the South China Sea for PLAN ballistic missile submarines and other vessels. China also interprets the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in an arbitrary manner and doesn’t accept military activities by foreign vessels and overflight in its waters.
Yet China's efforts to dominate the South China Sea face significant challenges. Chinese assertiveness hasn’t only inflamed hostilities from other claimants, but has also raised concerns from seafaring nations such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. After all, the South China Sea is a recognized international waterway, unlike the Sea of Okhotsk. In addition, since the JL-2 missiles can’t reach Los Angeles from the South China Sea, Type 094 submarines need to enter the Philippine Sea, where the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force conduct intense anti-submarine warfare operations.
To calm neighbouring claimants, China has conducted dialogue and consultations with them since the 1990s. One result was the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls for peaceful solutions through dialogue. But China has been reluctant about concluding a binding code of conduct. In response to China’s recent assertiveness, Vietnam and the Philippines have conducted live-fire exercises in disputed waters, and strengthened ties with the United States, with a US presence seen by both as the most visible deterrent.
The United States, for its part, has made clear its opposition to China’s assertiveness at various regional forums by emphasizing its interest in freedom of navigation. The United States recently announced the deployment of littoral combat ships in Singapore in the hope that their presence would have an additional deterrent effect on China’s assertiveness – just as Great Britain deployed HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse at the ‘Gibraltar of the East’ to deter Imperial Japan. On the other hand, since China’s excessive claims have led to incidents such as that in 2001 with the EP-3 spyplane and 2009's USS Impeccable incident, the United States is seeking an incidents at sea agreement with China. China, though, isn’t interested in any such thing as an agreement would justify a continued US presence in the South China Sea.
India is another important player in the South China Sea. Delhi is expected soon to introduce its first ballistic missile submarine, Arihant, and plans to build two more ballistic missile subs with the development of longer-range K-4 SLBMs. But until India successfully develops longer-range SLBMs, Indian submarines will need to operate in the South China Sea to target Beijing.
Australia is also concerned about high tensions in the region. Stability in Southeast Asia on Australia’s ‘Northern approaches’ is seen by policymakers there as particularly important as a hostile nation can project power out to Australia or threaten its seaborne trade and energy supply routes. As a result, it’s expected that Australia will boost its military presence in the state’s north while allowing greater access to its bases by the US military.
Japan, meanwhile, has its own strategic interests in the South China Sea, which is a critical sea lane through which 90 percent of its imported oil passes. The power balance in the South China Sea also has an enormous impact on security in Japan’s surrounding waters, namely the East China Sea and Philippine Sea. In addition, if China successfully obtains a sea-based second-strike capability by dominating the South China Sea, that would undermine the credibility of the US extended deterrent.
Japan announced its new National Defence Programme Guidelines in December 2010, which call for enhanced ISR operations along the Ryukyu island chain and reinforcement of the submarine fleet. In the recent US-Japan 2+2 meeting, Tokyo and Washington included maintenance of maritime security and strengthened ties with ASEAN, Australia, and India in common strategic objectives.
All this means that China faces a dilemma in the ‘Chinese Okhotsk.’ The more it seeks dominance over the international waterway, the more it invites hostilities. To avoid further deterioration, China should modify its nine-dotted claims in accordance with the UNCLOS (and the US should accede to UNCLOS immediately). As long as China continues its assertive behaviour, its maritime neighbours will strengthen strategic cooperation with the United States, India, Australia and Japan to establish a regional anti-submarine warfare network.
But the onus isn’t just on China – other nations in the region should seek cooperation. Where possible, joint development in disputed waters should be pursued, and the growing threat of piracy in the South China Sea suggests another area for nations to work together. Meanwhile, countries in the region should continue their dialogue with China on maritime security at venues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
It won’t be easy, but thrashing out a code of conduct offers the best chance of avoiding armed conflict.
Tetsuo Kotani is Special Research Fellow at the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo