On January 20, 2014, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flotilla of two destroyers, one amphibious landing craft and, quite possibly, a submarine escort, left the Chinese naval base on Hainan island for a three-week voyage that entailed patrolling the Paracel Islands (claimed by Vietnam), holding a shipboard ceremony off the Malaysian-claimed James Shoal in the South China Sea on January 26, reaffirming Beijing’s ownership of a reef about 50 miles off the Malaysian coast, and proceeding to the Western Pacific Ocean for live fire drills on February 3, before returning to China on February 11.
The significance of this voyage lies in the extent to which Beijing has deployed the Chinese navy in the region, thus indicating blue water operational capabilities while signaling to littoral states like Vietnam and Malaysia that China has both the maritime muscle and political will to enforce ownership of the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, even though these states are much closer to the Spratlys than China is.
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In response to the PLAN’s force projection into waters claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia, Hanoi’s silence and Kuala Lumpur’s resignation imply tacit acceptance of the creeping territorial incrementalism supporting Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. Indeed, Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian Defense minister, remarked regarding the recent Chinese foray into waters off James Shoal that, “We have to be realistic about our abilities, when faced with a big power like this.”
However, is the effective balance of naval power so skewed in Beijing’s favor that regional Spratly claimants like Vietnam and Malaysia are justified in adopting defeatist attitudes? Further analysis of planned enhancements to littoral state naval capabilities suggest that there is more than meets the eye.
With regard to Vietnam, it currently has 26 modern or relatively modern navy vessels (ships and submarines designed and built from the 1970s onwards) that possess sufficient range to patrol its UN mandated 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and protect Vietnamese held parts of the Spratly islands. Factoring in deployment cycles equally divided between repairs at port, sea trials and actual operational patrols, it can be reasoned that Vietnam can only place eight or nine naval vessels on patrol at any one time to ward off foreign intrusion. While this is insufficient considering Vietnam’s long coastline, EEZ and maritime claims, it must be noted that the Vietnamese are due to receive another four submarines by 2016 (in addition to the two already in service), two more frigates in the near future (there are two currently in service), six additional corvettes to add to the nine already in service and one more patrol boat currently under construction to reinforce the 13-strong patrol boat fleet. This implies that in a few years, Hanoi will be able to beef up its naval patrol fleet by 13 vessels, to 39 in total, yielding an effective year-round operational maritime deterrent of 13 ships and submarines, boosting Vietnamese naval strength by about 50 percent.
As for Malaysia, it has similar limitations, as it only has 30 modern warships and submarines capable of EEZ and disputed zone patrols. Assuming that the above mentioned repair, sea trial and patrol deployment cycle applies, Kuala Lumpur can presently only maintain a constant patrol force of 10 vessels. As with Vietnam, this is insufficient given the extent of Malaysia’s maritime concerns. However, the Malaysian navy will be reinforced by six littoral combat ships delivered from France, with the first of these due to be operational in 2018. Correspondingly, Kuala Lumpur will, in the near future, be able to strengthen its constant maritime deterrence force with 12 vessels instead of 10, a substantial increase of 20 percent.
Considering the present Vietnamese and Malaysian naval force strength along with planned near future ship and submarine acquisitions, China’s recent regional voyage has in practice exploited a window of vulnerability in Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s maritime national security. Whether or not Beijing is wilfully making the proverbial hay while sun shines is irrelevant. China has anywhere between two and four years before Vietnamese and Malaysian naval capabilities are ramped up and present a workable challenge to Chinese nautical expansionism. During this interim period, it is possible that the PLAN could erect more structures on unoccupied islands in the Spratly’s group, increase their troop presence in the disputed zone and plant more sovereignty markers near submerged Spratly features like reefs and shoals. Accordingly, de facto Chinese hegemony in the Spratly’s would erode Hanoi’s and Kuala Lumpur’s maritime security as Beijing would treat the 200 nautical mile “EEZ” around its claimed islands as its territorial waters, thereby depriving Vietnam and Malaysia of much of their rightful EEZs.
Before planned naval capability building can be completed, Vietnam and Malaysia need not resign themselves to the PLAN’s regional dominance, allowing China carte blanche. Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur can take effective interim measures to check any adventurism. For instance, the Vietnamese and Malaysian navies could shorten the sea trial periods in their deployment cycles to free up more time for operational patrols, utilize coast guard vessels to supplement EEZ patrols and even invest additional resources in conducting more maritime surveillance or sovereignty-enforcing overflights using current air assets.
Essentially, smaller regional states should not roll over and yield to China. Inasmuch as realism implies that “you do not own when you cannot defend,” the will, backed up with the wherewithal, to defend claimed territory might give Beijing pause while the balance of naval power stabilizes.
Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.