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    Greater China
     Jul 9, 2010
China flexes its naval muscle
By Peter J Brown

China this week again used the East China Sea as a setting for military maneuvers and exercises that it knew would rattle the United States and its allies. After recently calming Japanese concerns about rising tensions in this area, China shut down all vessel traffic in a large zone off the coast of Zhejiang as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted a series of live fire drills.

The PLAN engages in such drills each year, and does so in waters considered part of China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). All ships, including US military surveillance ships, are given fair warning to stay clear.

At the same time, because US Navy carriers do not frequent the Yellow Sea for a variety of reasons, China was sending

 

messages in advance that "national interests could be damaged" if the US proceeds to deploy a US carrier during a joint exercise with the South Korean navy later this summer.

"Under current situations, relevant parties should exercise restraint and refrain from doing things that may escalate tensions and harm the interests of the countries in the region," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

Having this floating symbol of US military might deployed so close to China is perceived by Beijing as more than a very unfriendly gesture on the part of the US. Another US aircraft carrier has just passed through the Panama Canal and will soon transit the Pacific Ocean - something else that Beijing must keep in mind.

Simply put, seldom have so many warships been exercising all at once in the Pacific. A large fleet of US and allied warships are engaged in the RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii, and the Russians are conducting a very large exercise in the western Pacific region.
Speculation swirled in the US and elsewhere about the possibility that the PLAN would launch Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) - known as "carrier killers" - during its East China Sea exercises just north of Taiwan.

Although photographs of the PLAN exercises have appeared, including numerous so-called Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft (FAC) and some of FACs firing YJ-83 missiles, there has been no independent verification of an actual ASBM launch by the PLAN in 2010. [1]

China vigorously denies any connection between its coastal defense exercise and the US carrier. However, the Chinese have engaged in their own spirited discussion about what is unfolding off their coastline, and many Chinese see a distinct connection.

"Though the Chinese government did not say anything about the drill, anybody with common sense on military strategy will bet that they are related," said Shi Yinhong, a senior expert on US studies at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, according to a China Daily report.

Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of Xinhua's World Military magazine, attempted to prod the PLAN into accepting the presence of a US aircraft carrier so close to China as an unusual opportunity to conduct further drills using the US ship as a hypothetical target. [2]

"Chinese naval activities and maritime claims in the Western Pacific have become more assertive," said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Tokyo-based Ocean Policy Research Foundation. "The PLA naval exercise was an attempt to check the expected US-ROK exercise in the Yellow Sea, especially the participation of the USS George Washington. In other words, that shows how much China is concerned about the US carrier based in Japan."

Kotani sees no reason why the US should refrain from sending its carrier to the exercise.

"It is totally legitimate under international law. Otherwise, the freedom of action and strategic mobility of the US military would be severely undermined,' said Kotani. "The US should be more assertive, hopefully with the Self-Defense Force. The US and Japan should consider trilateral exercise with ROK, too."

As much as the increasing size and power of the PLAN is a concern for the US-Japan alliance, the PLA's asymmetric warfare capabilities - such as anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite attack capabilities, quieter submarines, sophisticated mines, cyber and info attack capabilities - constitute a much more serious concern.

"The introduction of those asymmetric warfare capabilities can destabilize the balance of power in the region. So Japan needs to join the development of the 'AirSea Battle' concept to further support US forward presence," said Kotani.

The Japanese media's analysis of the situation, at the same time, is reflecting the unease and growing anxiety of the Japanese people over China's "saber-rattling" and attempts to fend off the US. The Chinese government seems to take these attitudes in stride.

"Naval tensions in the region have been high since the March 26 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan , which has been blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack," the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun declared this month. "China has long considered the Yellow Sea to be its 'backyard' and the dispatch of the aircraft carrier is being characterized as an 'attempt to invade the Yellow Sea using the sinking as a pretext'," according to the Chinese global affairs journal Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times). [3]

According to Yukie Yoshikawa, senior research fellow at the Edwin O Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies in Washington, DC, the fact that the Japanese government is remaining rather quiet about the PLAN exercise in the East China Sea is a bit deceiving because both the Japanese government and Japanese people are quite concerned about it.

"The Japanese view it in extension of a series of incidents involving Chinese ships which invaded the Japanese EEZ in April and May," said Yoshikawa. "Since then, the Japanese understand that China is willing to expand its control so as to be able to access the Pacific. Japan happens to be in between which will be a growing concern."

By the way, when Qin made his remarks about the need for restraint, he said nothing about the fact that two PLAN warships from the North China Sea Fleet had once again passed close to Okinawa on their way to the Pacific in early July.

While the PLAN drill is a regularly scheduled event, this year it has happened at the exact time when the US and Japan may be close to resolving the bitter and lengthy argument over the future of the Futenma military base on Okinawa. China may be exploiting the instability of US-Japan relations, and even experimenting to see how far it can go before US and Japan will respond.

"The US and Japan should show China that it has gone far enough and needs to back off. In that sense, terminating the current stalemate was one good sign, and announcing a joint exercise with Korea, though postponed, was another," said Yoshikawa. "But the US should do more, and anything that demonstrates that the US is still committed to the security of Northeast Asia is necessary, including proceeding with the deployment of a US carrier in the joint exercise with Korea."

Yoshikawa also recommends that military-to-military exchanges between the US and China "should be resumed, more seriously, in order to not escalate the situation any further".

In terms of the US military posture in the western Pacific, Yoshikawa supports the status quo.

"The US should be in the picture, since all the neighboring countries have designed and planned their defense structures under the assumption that the US would be stationed in Japan, the ROK," said Yoshikawa. "In order for the US military presence to fade, Japan needs to enhance its military capabilities that are now designed to rely on the US, while discussing arms reduction with China, the ROK, and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], and making collective agreements on sea-lane defense between Japan and the Middle East. As far as none of this is happening, the US needs to stay."

At the same time, mounting concerns in Japan over China's activities and recent behavior should not be misunderstood as somehow transforming China into some sort of a direct threat to Japan in the eyes of the Japanese.

"The reality is that while Japan cannot overtly say China is a threat because Japan already depends heavily on China economically, Japan has not given enough serious thought to China, nor its future and its military ambitions," said Yoshikawa. "This concern will be expressed more indirectly as 'the US military role is and continues to be important to Japan', rather than saying 'China is a threat, so we need to team with the US to contain China'. This is a lesson from former Japanese prime minister Junichiri Koizumi's time in office."

Russia's presence cannot go unmentioned. Despite the intense focus on the PLAN and the whereabouts of a US aircraft carrier, Russia quietly assembled several warships in the East Sea/Sea of Japan from its North, Black Sea and Pacific fleets in order to conduct its largest naval exercise in many years. With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looking on, Russian battle cruisers and destroyers that had arrived in the region weeks earlier fired anti-ship missiles over long distances, and performed other anti-carrier maneuvers in the Sea of Okhotsk earlier this month.

In doing so, Russia is sending a strong signal to both China and Japan.

"It is hardly surprising that such exercises are conducted on the Pacific theater of war, as this region is and will remain one of the most conflict-prone areas for Russia in the next 20-30 years," said RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik. "Russian-Japanese disagreements over the disputed South Kuril archipelago, called the 'Northern Territories' by Tokyo, and Russia's proximity to a powerful China prompt Moscow to find new ways to defend its Far East possessions in the event of a hypothetical conflict." [4]

Amid all the talk about exercises and China's rapidly improving naval capabilities, the US Navy is raising questions about its own state of readiness. Navy Times obtained a copy of the long-awaited report prepared by a US Navy panel headed by retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle about the questionable condition of some of the US Navy's Aegis-equipped warships.

The findings of the Balisle panel are considered a wakeup call in terms of the US Navy's important and expanding anti-missile mission. In a nutshell, the report identified numerous serious problems including a lack of adequately trained and experienced personnel, degraded radar operations on numerous ships, the presence of a failure to understand the importance of strong, reliable and consistent system performance. [5]

This report will be required reading to many, given the fact that AEGIS-equipped warships are vital components in the ballistic missile defense networks now in place in the US, Japan and soon Europe. In light of the looming ASBM threat in particular, the dependence of US aircraft carriers upon the anti-missile screen provided by these ultra-high-tech warships is only going to increase.

Notes
1. East China Sea Fleet organizes sea-and-air exercise, China Military Online, Jul 7, 2010.
2. PLA set to hold sea drill, People's Daily, Jun 29, 2010.
3. China's saber-rattling naval exercises designed to deter US, Asahi, Jul 5, 2010.
4. Russian Navy participates in Vostok-2010 military exercises, RIA Novosti, Jul 7, 2010.
5. Study says Aegis radar systems on the decline, Jul 7, 2010.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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