China's navy cruises into Pacific ascendancy
By Peter J Brown
In mid-April, two Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers, the Choukai
and Suzunami, unexpectedly encountered several Chinese People's
Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, including a pair of submarines and eight
destroyers, approximately 140 kilometers west-southwest of Okinawa near the
Nansei (Ryukyu) Islands.
The Chinese warships were heading out of the East China Sea and into the
Western Pacific. They passed north of Miyako Island - the northernmost island
in the Nansei group - through the
Miyako Strait and then proceeded to head southeast.
They were there to practice anti-submarine warfare, underway refueling and
helicopter flight training, to name a few of the procedures.
During one PLAN helicopter flight, the Suzunami was subjected to a close
encounter which prompted a formal protest by Japan's SDF Joint Staff Office.
The presence of the PLAN subs also sparked a protest.
Japan's Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi was upset that so many Chinese
warships had sailed so near to Japan on their way to the western Pacific Ocean
without any prior notification by China. 
Kitazawa said nothing about whether or not any of the five new Chinese earth
observation/military reconnaissance satellites launched since late 2009 were
engaged in assisting the PLAN warships during their unannounced passage.
Gary Li, a PLA specialist at the London-based Institute of International and
Strategic Studies (IISS) said the PLAN's actions in this instance were very
significant. Li describes the incident as unprecedented and an attempt by China
to "send a very clear message to the region that it should be prepared to see a
China unafraid to really test its reach and move into new areas". 
Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at The Nixon Center in Washington, DC,
did not agree with Li, adding that the recent PLAN "blue water" activity off
Japan did not prove that the PLAN has entered a disturbing new phase in its
"Calling this a new phase is overly dramatic. The PLA has been working for a
long time on expanding their ability to operate farther from their shores and
conduct joint operations closely coordinating air, land and sea platforms,"
said Thompson. "These PLAN exercises certainly demonstrate expanded
capabilities, or at least the willingness to exercise the hardware they have
more vigorously, but it should be viewed as part of a continuum rather than a
departure from a previous period of development."
Certainly, it is not getting any easier for the US and the rest of Asia to
determine where exactly China is heading and what China's exact intentions are.
"Reports of a transit by the PLAN forces close to Okinawa only remind US allies
in Japan and throughout the Asia-Pacific, that China's future course is
unclear," said Abraham Denmark, a fellow at the Center for a New American
Security in Washington, DC. "It is important to retain a military hedge against
the possibility that China could become confrontational and militarily
The PLAN has long been charged with two primary tasks: defending the mainland
and operations related to a Taiwan contingency, which would primarily involve
anti-access/area denial operations in the Western Pacific, according to
This exercise may be further evidence of the growing emphasis placed by the
PLAN on protecting vital so-called "Sea Lines of Communication" (SLOCs).
Chinese President Hu Jintao has referred to this role as one of the PLA's "new
"China's leaders have slowly come to recognize that its continued economic
development relies on access to foreign resources and markets. For example, 80%
of China's oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca, yet the PLAN
currently does not have the capability to protect Chinese vessels far from
home," said Denmark. "This has made China's military leaders begin to examine a
third role for the PLAN, which would entail SLOC protection."
Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based International
Assessment and Strategy Center, described this recent East China Sea exercise
by the PLAN as representing "a significant step in reaping the past decade's
"The PLAN deployed at least two small multi-platform surface action groups to
include submarines, long-range anti-air defenses, logistic support ships,
supported by new long-range ground based and space-based surveillance, and
reportedly, significant ground-based air," said Fisher. "This was a multi-fleet
operation that reportedly involved Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS]
aircraft and fighters, which if true would constitute a major expansion of the
PLAN's operational capabilities."
v For Taiwan and for any US forces that may have to break a future PLAN
blockade, the message is clear.
"In a decade, there could be two carriers, larger destroyers, and, even ship-
and submarine-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles [ASBMs] in the mix. Absent
a sustained investment by the US and Japan in space defenses, naval energy
weapons to counter ASBMs, plus their own, and, fifth and sixth generation
fighters for air force and naval deployment, they will lose maritime dominance
in the Western Pacific by the mid-2020s," said Fisher. "These investments are
less likely as long as Washington and Tokyo remain transfixed by the mirage
that Beijing will become their 'pivotal partner' in meeting future challenges,
they simply want to ignore the fact that it is China which is the challenge."
As for the role of space assets and space defense-related issues, they have
slipped under the radar in large part thus far. What is unfolding overhead in
support of any or all of the PLAN operations may be the most significant aspect
of this recent Chinese war gaming in the Western Pacific. In fact, absent
evidence to the contrary, the presence aloft of so many new Chinese earth
observation/military reconnaissance satellites is what sets this exercise apart
from all previous PLAN exercises.
According to Associate Professor Andrew Erickson with the China Maritime
Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, China is rapidly improving its
increasingly diverse network of space-based Intelligence, Surveillance and
Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors in support of military land, sea and air
"Synthetic Aperture Radar [SAR] in particular offers wide coverage at
sufficient resolution. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national level
under China's 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receiving
significant funding," said Erickson.
Over the past decade, China has launched two Haiyang (Ocean) maritime
observation satellites, and a third is now scheduled for launch this year after
its original launch date in 2009 was scratched. In addition, China's has
recently expanded its fleet of Yaogan satellites, which China describes as
merely engaging in civilian earth observation missions. However, many experts
identify them as dual role, military reconnaissance satellites. The Yaogans
carry a mix of optical as well as radar-based sensors.
"Of particular note are the five Yaogan satellites that China has launched in
the past five months. Yaogan 7 and 8 were launched in December. Yaogan 7 is
optical and Yaogan 8 appears to be equipped with SAR," said Erickson. "Yaogan
9A, 9B, and 9C, launched in March, share the same orbit, suggesting that they
have a special mission to perform."
Interestingly, when the official announcement was made by China's Xinhua news
agency of the pending Yaogan 9 launch - a day before it took place as is the
custom whenever secret Chinese military payloads in particular are ready to go
up - Xinhua reported that a large satellite, and not a payload consisting of
three smaller formation-flying satellites, was sitting on the launch pad. 
All of these Chinese satellites, together with China's development of
ground-based over-the-horizon radars, suggests that China is developing
unprecedented capability to monitor and conduct operations along its disputed
maritime periphery, according to Erickson. He marks this exercise as proof
positive that the PLAN is now finally and fully prepared to meet strategic
goals originally articulated by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who headed the PLAN from
1982 to 1988. In effect, PLAN is now starting to conduct "far seas operations"
beyond the so-called "First Island Chain".
US Navy Admiral Robert Willard commands the US Pacific Fleet. His testimony in
March that China is "developing and testing" an ASBM only adds to the sense
that China is fast assembling a far more formidable naval force.
"Such PLAN operations at increasing range from China's shores are
ever-better-supported by improving satellite-based communications, positioning,
and surveillance capabilities," said Erickson. "Unprecedented and innovative
use of satellite communications has been a major highlight of China's
counter-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden; there the PLAN apparently
relied solely on indigenous capabilities for the first time. While US and most
Western [as well as the former Soviet] navies have engaged in related
operations for years, this was a new and important step for the PLAN."
In advance of the PLAN's December 2008 deployment to the Gulf of Aden, PLAN
commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, and PLAN political commissar, Admiral Liu
Xiaojiang, demanded "comprehensive coverage, all-time linkage, and full-course
The PLAN's newspaper, People's Navy, reported that the PLAN Political
Department worked with the PLAN Headquarters Communications Department and the
State Information Center to improve a platform that:
[I]ntegrates a land base information collection and transmission
system, an information integration and distribution system, a shore-to-ship
information wireless transmission system, and an information terminal receiving
system. They also sent technical personnel to Sanya [on Hainan Island] to
conduct satellite receiving equipment debugging, system installation, and
personnel training on the three combat ships that were about to set sail for
escort operations. Moreover, they specially developed and improved a total of
seven information processing software programs, which can send text, images, as
well as video and audio documents quickly.
Satellite-based navigation and positioning via China's Beidou-1, currently a
4-satellite constellation, has very limited range and can support
ship-positioning on China's immediate maritime periphery, but not further
"It could not be used [during a missile attack] for short-range precision
guidance because it is too slow, allowing for insufficient information [flow]
during a missile's relatively short flight time," said Erickson "In part to
support broader operations, China is deploying a 35-satellite Beidou-2/Compass
system that would provide much improved accuracy, with regional navigation and
communications coverage anticipated by 2011 and global navigation coverage by
2015-20. Three Compass satellites have been launched thus far."
While the PLAN is gradually increasing focus on areas beyond mainland China,
this is part of a two-level process - Erickson refers to a "tale of two navies"
- with nearby priorities still at the core.
"Preparing to defend China's territorial and maritime claims by asymmetric
means is likely to remain the PLAN's focus for the foreseeable future, even as
it pursues secondarily lower intensity missions further afield," said Erickson
"China's capabilities are clearly growing, but its naval intentions - at least
beyond asserting control over its claimed territorial waters, to include Taiwan
- are somewhat unclear."
Fisher finds no lack of clarity, however, when it comes to the steady
progression in the core Chinese military strategy including its military space
strategy which reinforces the PLAN's operational prowess at every turn.
"The PLAN's first requirement for regional and global projection is dominance
of the Low Earth Orbit theater of operations. We know that this is now a very
high priority for the PLA, not just to enable an array of PLAN weapons," said
Fisher. "The PLAN will eventually field anti-satellite weapons, other space
combat capabilities, and, submarine and ship - launched ASBMs."
Fisher identifies submarines as the second major PLAN program of global
"These will be much quieter, and improved versions may allow the beginning of
independent deep water ballistic missile-equipped submarine operations."
A third program is the construction of as many as four aircraft carrier and
large amphibious ship battle groups by the late 2020s.
"There is also a fourth essential program, the PLA's ability to sell world
class naval and other military technologies, which together with commercial
envelopment, forms core strategic relationships that will yield maritime
alliances," Fisher said.
Denmark cautions that whatever conclusions are drawn, there is no question that
PLAN still has a long way to go before it can be classified as a formidable
"blue water" naval force.
"The PLAN currently does not have the experience required to operate for
extended periods of time far from home, nor does it have sufficient numbers of
ships to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean without significantly
diminishing its ability to respond to threats closer to home," said Denmark.
"Moreover, the PLA is traditionally dominated by leaders with experience in
ground operations, and significant doctrinal and conceptual changes will have
to take place within the PLA before the PLAN would be able to protect SLOCs."
Despite the Gulf of Aden missions to date, SLOC protection, specifically in the
Indian Ocean, remains very challenging for the PLAN.
"China has no military bases in the Indian Ocean, and its ships conducting
counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia are primarily supported by
oilers from China. If the PLAN develops the capability to establish a regular
presence in the Indian Ocean, such a force would either be dependent on
logistical ships transiting back and forth through Indonesia or on a network of
regional support bases or ports," said Denmark. "While much has been written
about Chinese involvement in port development in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma
[Myanmar], these ports appear to be commercial only. Still, it is conceivable
that the PLAN could use commercial ports in the Indian Ocean, especially in
friendly countries, for logistical support during peacetime."
Whether the five new Chinese satellites launched since late 2009 may have been
tasked to assist the PLAN warships during their April exercise far from the
shores of China remains open to question. However, there is no denying that
those same satellites were still stuck on the ground the last time any prior
large-scale PLAN exercises took place in the same vicinity.