Two warships of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) docked at a port in Myanmar on August 29, 2010, in the first publicized PLAN ship visit — but not the first actual PLAN visit — to Myanmar.
It was a move designed to help pre-position the PRC in its relations with Myanmar in the lead up to that country’s upcoming national elections. The move also ended two decades of discreet PRC approaches to its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. It also follows the open PLAN task force presence in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, and the now open commitment to use of the Pakistani Baluchistan port of Gwadar, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
Significantly, although the PRC maintains itself as both a heartland and maritime power, it is aware that the great challenge to break out from US global strategic dominance is essentially a maritime matter. Given economic and other realities, the US will be forced to rely increasingly on the US Navy — and particularly the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and Indian Oceans — to project US influence.
But Washington is also working to bolster its strategic relations with the Republic of Korea, the ASEAN states as a whole, and India. The crunch for the US will be in finding the economic resources to boost the US Navy’s power projection advantages, particularly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
An Australian analyst, Dr Joel Rathus, of Adelaide University and Japan’s Meiji University, has noted (in the East Asia Forum, August 28, 1010): “A re-alignment is steadily underway in East Asia. Increasingly, ASEAN (and Korea) are moving closer to the geographically distant US, while China is becoming more distant from its neighbors.”
He also said: “China has seen the US and ASEAN draw closer on issues of major interest, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Clinton’s identification of this issue as a ‘pivot’ of regional security brings the United States back as a player after more than a decade of diplomatic passivity (to China’s notable discomfort).”
Building, or re-building, the US Navy in the Pacific and Indian Ocean to its earlier pre-eminence will not be easy for the US, despite the apparent numerical dominance which the USN has in the regions in terms of air and naval striking power.
To begin with, the PLAN has already deployed assets which severely inhibit the US Seventh Fleet: the Kilo- and Improved Kilo-class submarines, and other modern submarines, which can readily penetrate USN anti-submarine warfare (ASW) pickets around carrier battle groups; and the shipborne SS-N-22 Sunburn (P-270 Moskit or 3M-80/-80E) supersonic anti-ship missiles, against which there is as yet no adequate defense.
Now, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, has confirmed during August 2010 discussions in Tokyo, that the PLA was “close to becoming operational” with its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), based on a variant of the CSS-5 medium-range (1,500 to 2,000 km) ballistic missile (also known as the DF-21).
The DF-21s have maneuverable warheads (MARVs: Maneuverable Re-Entry Vehicles), and the type has undergone testing. The yet-to-be-deployed DF-21D would, most US sources agree, be a game-changer in the Pacific, giving the PRC, not the US, control of the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) high ground. The PRC is highly conscious of the fact that control of the seas is foreseeably being removed from the US.
All of this potentially makes the US-Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) strategic relationship of greatly renewed importance, but the US has gone out of its way in recent years to downplay this, even to the point of supporting the ROC Army’s internal political lobbying to retain control of the ROC defense equation.
Right now, some 80 percent of the ROC’s defense spending goes to the Army, which reflects the original “continental army” approach which the ROC had when it left the mainland and was positioning itself to return. That situation no longer prevails: the ROC is now an island, maritime power, which relies on sea transport for some 99 percent of its raw materials.
Despite this, the US — and even the US Naval War College analysts — have gone out of their way to promote a so-called “porcupine strategy” for the ROC, by which it would rely on the Army to repel a PRC invasion. Now, however, the US needs the ROC to develop its maritime and air power resources, which have long been neglected.
Mark Helprin, writing in The Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2010, noted that “If present military trends continue, the correlation of forces will shift much more to Beijing's advantage within the next decade.” He continued:
“Lurking about the presidency in the guise of secretary of state, America's chief diplomat has embarked upon a mistake that someday may rival Dean Acheson's exclusion of Korea from the Pacific defense area, or April Glaspie's muddled words to Saddam Hussein.
At a regional meeting in Hanoi in late July, Hillary Clinton unveiled an initiative the effect of which is an attempt to forge a defensive alliance along the maritime perimeter, with nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Like her predecessor Acheson, Mrs. Clinton seems averse or blind to military analysis. Her inevitably stillborn South China Sea initiative is showy diplomacy that may lead either to a military clash with China or, more likely, a ratification of China's aims as the United States lets its implied guarantees die on the vine.
China's assertions in regard to the potentially oil rich and strategically important South China Sea are consistent, clear, and patently absurd. Based upon the questionable ownership of uninhabited rocks and shoals, some which do not rise above water and others roughly the size of a Volkswagen, it claims an area almost as large as the Caribbean Basin and as far as 1,800 miles from its nearest shoreline.
In linking America's national interests to those of the coastal states thus insulted, Mrs. Clinton's recent comments are commendable but insufficiently backed. China above all is sensitive to "paper-tigerism" and ready to challenge it, especially in regard to its essential interests and where the balance of applicable power is swinging in its favor. A naval battle in which China has the upper hand? Do we not have the most powerful military in the world?
We do, but strategic appraisal must not be one-dimensional. Although decisive to some, that this country spends more on defense than the next 14 countries combined is irrelevant to things such as the scope of its commitments, personnel costs, the willingness or reticence of allies, purchasing power parity, force structure, asymmetrical advantage and disadvantage, domestic politics, strategical genius, its absence, and many other factors including not least geography.
China fought us to a draw in Korea more than half a century ago. In Vietnam we stayed our hand for fear of drawing it into the battle, when its primitive navy was not even a tenth the size of ours, it had no nuclear weapons that could threaten us, and the Western Pacific was an American lake with a necklace of massive military installations now largely abandoned and an alliance structure we are at present trying to rebuild with words. Whittled down by successive administrations, the big stick now turns on the Obama lathe as it is pressed against the Gates knife. If present trends merely continue, in five or 10 years, when the U.S. will have to decide whether to challenge China's claims or acquiesce, the correlation of forces will have shifted much more to China's advantage. “
The PRC’s anti-fleet capabilities are not the only concern which the US must face in the region. The Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile is already deployed with the Indian fleet and the new BrahMos Block II — which is capable of more complex trajectory and maneuver — has now (as of September 5, 2010) been successfully tested. These various missiles, deployed by the PRC and India, have yet to see successful countermeasures deployed by the US Navy.
At present, the US has pursued an aggressive strategic campaign to provide strategic partnership to India, but in reality India cannot afford to abandon its relationship with Russia, even though New Delhi is aware that it must move its relationship with Russia to a new parity, abandoning the old Cold War paternalism with which Moscow treated India.
Moreover, India, while seeing accord with the US on dealing with the PRC, has its own strategic agenda to follow in the Indian Ocean, and this, too, is not necessarily in total accord with the objectives of Washington.