Friday, April 15, 2005

Big Trouble in Little China

Defense Tech asks whether China will soon "have the teeth to chomp down on Taiwan" and concludes that it will, citing increases in China's amphibious warfare capability. 

the PLA has shifted focus towards amphibious operations for a significant part of the ground forces ... this has included the reorganisation of two motorised infantry divisions in the Nanjing and Guangzhou Military Regions into amphibious infantry divisions and the transfer of another infantry division to the navy to form a second marine brigade in the late 1990s. ... round a quarter of all PLA manoeuvre units, which number around 20 divisions or brigades, plus supporting artillery and air-defence units, have participated in training exercises for amphibious operations…

The US intelligence community has reported that since 2001, the Chinese shipbuilding industry has produced 23 new amphibious assault ships and 13 conventional attack submarines. ... The PLA Navy (PLAN) is rapidly transforming itself from a coastal force into a bluewater naval power with a force modernisation drive that is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era. "The range and number of warships the Chinese navy is acquiring can be compared to the Soviet Union's race to become an ocean-going navy to rival the US in the 1970s," said a China-based foreign naval attaché.

But stop there a moment. "The PLA Navy (PLAN) is rapidly transforming itself from a coastal force into a bluewater naval power with a force modernisation drive that is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era." If China's strategic goal is to take Taiwan why should it need a Blue Water navy? Furthermore, why should Taiwan represent any strategic priority at all? The small island nation poses no credible threat to mainland. The real strategic center of Chinese interests is the South China sea through which the commercial and petroleum lifeblood of China flows. According to the Washington Times, China understands that the principle national security threat facing it is disruption of sea lanes bringing oil and commerce to its shores.

China believes the U.S. military will disrupt China's energy imports in any conflict over Taiwan ... Beijing's leaders see access to oil and gas resources as vital to economic growth and fear that stalled economic growth could cause instability and ultimately the collapse of their nation of 1.3 billion people. Energy demand, particularly for oil, will increase sharply in the next 20 years — from 75 million barrels per day last year to 120 million barrels in 2025 -- with Asia consuming 80 percent of the added 45 million barrels, the report said. Eighty percent of China's oil currently passes through the Strait of Malacca, and the report states that China believes the sea area is "controlled by the U.S. Navy." Chinese President Hu Jintao recently stated that China faces a "Malacca Dilemma" -- the vulnerability of its oil supply lines from the Middle East and Africa to disruption. Oil-tanker traffic through the Strait, which is closest to Indonesia, is projected to grow from 10 million barrels a day in 2002 to 20 million barrels a day in 2020, the report said. Chinese specialists interviewed for the report said the United States has the military capability to cut off Chinese oil imports and could "severely cripple" China by blocking its energy supplies.

As the Belmont Club argued in an earlier post, one USN riposte to a Chinese blockade campaign against Taiwan would be to shut the oil flowing to the People's Republic at the spigot, through its control of the Persian Gulf: a counter-blockade. This blue-water threat represents the true strategic threat to the Chinese commercial lifeline. For that reason, recent Chinese efforts to build naval intallations ("a string of pearls") along the route to the Persian Gulf in Cambodia, Rangoon, Burma and Pakistan and develop its oceangoing navy must be understood as going beyond its ambitions against Taiwan.

But even if the United States could be persuaded not to intervene in any dispute with Taiwan, China's peculiar geographic vulnerability to maritime disruption means that even Taiwan's small submarine force could pose a major threat. This map from Global Security underscores how vital the South China Sea is to China's economy. Virtually all VLCC traffic to China, Japan and South Korea pass through the Lombok and Malacca Straits. Traffic bound for the cluster of ports (run your mouse along the Chinese coast and the ports will pop up as circles) around Guangdong (Hongkong and related ports) can stop 600 km west-southwest of Taiwan, but traffic bound for the port clusters around Shanghai must pass east of Taiwan, through the Luzon straits before berthing 600 km due north of Taipei -- right past the Bonins -- including Okinawa. Should Taiwan respond to a Chinese threat by deploying its Zwaardvis class diesel electrics along the Bonin littoral, the northern Chinese ports would be blockadaded. Both the Guangdong and Shanghai ports themselves are well within range of the 9,000 nautical mile ranged Taiwanese diesel-electrics.

Here is where some military analysts may have it wrong with their scenarios of a triumphal Chinese descent on a hapless Taiwan.  Taiwanese diesel electrics could respond to mainland saber rattling by taking station to the Bonins northeast of Taiwan and would be far better suited to littoral warfare than the nuclear attack boats Beijing is building. Moreover, any combat between Taiwan and China in this area would be exceedingly dangerous, because it would occur virtually within Japanese territorial waters. China would have to be very careful in naval operations or risk attacking Japanese fleet units by accident. Escorting tanker convoys east of Taiwan and through the Bonins  would be a nightmare. In fact, Taiwanese naval action need only be threatened: any naval confrontation in the South China sea would almost certainly disrupt commercial and oil traffic not only to China, but to Japan and Korea as well. If that were not enough, the Taiwanese subs could head south as well. All Taiwan would need to do is torpedo one large VLCC in the Malacca straits to block it for months. None of these prospects have been lost on Taiwanese planners. The Taipei Times says:

"If Taiwan obtains the eight diesel-powered submarines we propose to purchase through the US, we will have the capability of blockading China's sea lanes in South China and East China seas," Minister of National Defense Lee Jye  said yesterday at the legislature. He said the MND assessed that China will need to import 90 percent of its energy needs by 2020. He said China currently has 30 days of oil reserves, and that it wants to reach 50 days in 2010 and 90 days in 2020. He said, however, that even if China achieves that goal, its oil reserves would be insufficient in comparison with the US' 158-day reserves and Japan's 161-day reserves.

In addition, he said that the MND believes that by the year 2010, China will need to import 36.29 million tonnes of food, rising to 54.4 million tonnes in 2020 and 118 million tonnes in 2030. He said China therefore requires secure sea lanes, which the MND believes is one of China's big weaknesses should it go to war against Taiwan. Lee said the MND calculated that in 2020, Taiwan will require at least 10 submarines to patrol waters around Taiwan, including waters east of Taiwan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. He said if China takes military action against Taiwan, the 10 submarines would be able to blockade the sea lanes and attack China's warships and civilian shipping.

The Taiwanese have done the numbers. They understand the capability of their boats is limited by their small numbers but know that if China precipitates a conflict in the South China sea it would run out of energy seventy days before the US and Japan -- though the US will only be inconvenienced because eastbound voyages to the US can be routed through the Torres Straits and the westward route to the East Coast through the Mozambique Channel and around the Horn of Africa will remain open. (See page 8 of this document for a thumbnail chart of world VLCC lanes) One final thought from the Indian Navy perspective:

the navy last month operationalised its first full-fledged UAV base in Kochi in Kerala ... four Heron crafts were ordered from Israel. ... The navy plans to induct at least a dozen Israeli UAVs and set up UAV bases in Port Blair and Lakshwadeep islands as well. In fact, a full-fledged base in the Andaman islands to monitor the Chinese movements in the seas is also being planned. China has, during the last decade, shown increasing eagerness to be present in the Andamans. It has eavesdropping equipment permanently placed in the Coco Islands.

China is the last nation that will want trouble in the Taiwan Straits.