China Demonstrates New Confidence, Feeds Anxiety
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s recent naval exercise in the South China Sea showed off new ships and a new confidence in projecting force toward important shipping routes. But its timing, combined with various diplomatic assertions, fed tensions with regional and global neighbors.
The July 24-27 exercise, the largest live-fire war game held to date by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the area, brought together Chinese warships, submarines and combat aircraft that included elements of all three fleets: North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet.
The state-run PLA Daily said the exercise included “precision strikes on surface targets by firing guided missiles while surface warships conducted anti-missile air defense operations.”
Though the number and variety of ships is significant, it was the “newness” of many of the ships and the drills “in new forms of command and control and near state-of-the-art weaponry” that attracted the most attention, said Bud Cole, author of the book “The Great Wall at Sea.”
Exercise photos released by PLAN showed three new vessels: the 7,000-ton DDG-171 “Haikou” Luyang II-class (Type 052C) destroyer, 2,400-ton FFG-570 “Huangshan” Jiangkai II-class (Type 054) frigate and the 220-ton stealthy catamaran Houbei-class (Type 022) fast-attack missile boat.
China has built between 40 and 80 Houbei’s since 2004, each carrying up to eight cruise missiles.
“The focus on the Houbei missile boat ‘swarm attack’ tactic in this exercise” also took place in a North Sea Fleet exercise last year, said Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International, a naval analyses firm.
Older vessels in the exercise included the 2,250-ton FFG Jiangwei-class (Type 053) frigate and the 7,940-ton DDG-139 “Taizhou” Sovremenny-class destroyer.
China “appears to be balancing general-purpose naval force investments not just in force structure but training and readiness across three fleets,” Nugent said. “This was not always the case. Ten years ago, most fleet sea exercises appeared concentrated in the North Sea Fleet and East Sea Fleet exercise areas.”
The new emphases on southerly routes “reflect a PLAN keenly aware of its growing energy dependency and need for a more balanced fleet to assure SLOC [sea lines of communication] security for those energy inflows,” he said.
Since 2005, the PLAN has demonstrated increasing confidence at organizing and deploying surface action groups along China’s maritime periphery, said Toshi Yoshihara, a China naval specialist at the U.S. Naval War College.
“They are demonstrating greater comfort in deploying them at greater distances, breaking through the first island chain with increasing frequency,” he said.
This is part of China’s “offshore defense” or “near seas defense” strategy and has been a threedecade-long goal of the PLAN.
Therefore, he said, we should “not be surprised that Beijing is beginning to align its capabilities with its long-held aspirations.”
The exercise was held at the same time as a U.S.-South Korean naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, an event Chinese officials had protested.
It followed Beijing’s declaration in March that the South China Sea is now a “core interest” on par with its claims over Taiwan and Tibet. And just days later, a Defense Ministry spokesman, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, said China would respect the freedom of navigation of “relevant countries” traversing the South China Sea, but said the country has “indisputable sovereignty” over islands there and in “surrounding waters.” At least one Chinese academic took pains to emphasize that the claims are on the islands, not the waters.
“First of all, no one in Beijing considers the South China Sea a Chinese territorial sea,” said Zhu Feng, security analyst at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies.
“Chinese concern is always with territorial sovereignty claims over the Spratly Islands.” The exercise was conducted at an awkward time for regional neighbors. The day before the exercise began, Hanoi hosted the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum, where China took a browbeating from the U. S. and other regional countries, who charged Beijing with trying to dominate the South China Sea and intimidate Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.
At the forum, U.S. officials criticized China’s insistence that disputes in the South China Sea be settled bilaterally. Many see that as part of a Chinese strategy to “divide and conquer” ASEAN.
France agrees with the U.S. insistence on multilateral discussions, said a diplomatic source in Paris. The source added that his government wants to see these differences settled peacefully and in line with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Kerry Brown, senior fellow on the Asia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the EU should be worried about tensions over the South China Sea.
“China’s assertiveness has global implications and its implacability over this issue, on top of several other issues where it has been stroppy recently, are ominous,” he said.
Andrew Chuter contributed to this report from London, Pierre Tran from Paris.
Diplomatic temperatures are rising off the coast of Asia, thanks to events in and around the South China Sea.
■ March: China begins referring to the South China Sea as a “core national interest” on par with China’s claims over Taiwan and Tibet.
■ March 26: The Cheonan, a South Korean corvette, is sunk in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 sailors. The remains of a North Korean torpedo is recovered at the scene.
■ June 30-July 5: China’s East Sea Fleet conducts a live-fire naval exercise that includes 12 ships and 10 warplanes in the East China Sea.
■ July 23: The U.S. and other regional members attending the 17th Association of Southeast Asia Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi browbeat China over its policies in the South China Sea.
■ July 24-27: The U.S. and South Korea conduct a joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea. After China protests, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington does not enter the Yellow Sea.
■ July 24-27: China conducts a large-scale naval live-fire exercise in the South China Sea.
■ July 27: The Chinese army tests a new land-based long-range artillery rocket toward the Yellow Sea. China’s North Sea Fleet conducts a joint maritime search-and-rescue exercise in the waters of Qingdao.
■ July 30: Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said China has “indisputable sovereignty” over islands in the South China Sea and the “surrounding waters.”
■ Aug. 3-7: China’s Jinan Military Command conducts the Vanguard-2010 live-fire air defense exercise in Shandong Province involving 12,000 troops and 200 military aircraft.
■ Aug. 5: U.S. officials announce plans to send the USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea in upcoming exercises. China protests the decision.
■ Aug. 6 : China protests Vietnamese claims over the Paracel (Xisha) Islands, saying, “China has indisputable sovereignty” over islands. China and then-South Vietnam fought a naval battle over the islands in 1974.
■ Aug. 7-8: China’s North Sea Fleet conducts a maritime parachute training exercise.
■ Aug. 11: USS John McCain makes a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.