Big boat, little punch in South China Sea
By Phil Radford
SYDNEY - The Chinese aircraft carrier that began sea trials last week is by far
the largest warship of any country in Asia and in certain realms could give
China game-changing capabilities. However, the carrier cannot help China assert
sovereignty over the South China Sea - its biggest maritime headache - and the
ship could prove to be more of a diplomatic liability than a military asset.
At 300 meters long and displacing over 60,000 tons, the carrier is by far the
largest warship of any navy in Asia. No other country in the region can operate
fighter aircraft from a warship except Thailand, whose Chakri Narubet is
less than a fifth the size. Once fully operational, the Chinese carrier should
be able to sustain up to 40 Sukhoi 33-derived J-15 naval air-superiority
fighters and up to 20 rotary aircraft, including Ka-28 anti-submarine
On the surface, this capability would seem to decisively shift the
balance of power in the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes
with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Currently, China
claims its territorial waters skirt the Philippines' coast as far south as
Brunei, on Borneo island, before looping north and hugging the Vietnamese coast
back to southern China. This 80-year-old claim neatly encompasses the Spratly
and Paracel island reefs, assumed to be rich in hydrocarbon resources by
surrounding countries that have erected research installations on them.
With an operational carrier based at China's expanded naval facility at Sanya
on Hainan Island, China could conceivably maintain local air superiority over
any point in the disputed South China Sea - a precondition for decisive
military or diplomatic efforts to enforce its maritime claim and force the
withdrawal of rival commercial operations and installations from the islands.
This capability would also help China reduce other countries' enthusiasm for
the frequent maritime spats that occur in these contested waters and the
nationalist outpourings that follow. In the latest incident in mid-June,
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Vietnamese exploration vessels of
conducting unlawful oil and gas surveys off the Spratly archipelago, harassing
Chinese fishing vessels and "gravely violating China's sovereignty and maritime
Despite Chinese defense officials claims that the new carrier is intended for
scientific research and training, the ship clearly fulfills a strategic
function. The official Xinhua news agency published a commentary shortly before
the ship departed saying, "Building a strong navy that is commensurate with
China's rising status is a necessary step, and an inevitable choice for the
country to safeguard its increasingly globalized national interests."
However, even if it becomes operational, the carrier and its air groups will be
hugely vulnerable and China is unlikely to risk using it in any confrontation
with rivals in the South China Sea.
Without catapults or arrester wires, the carrier will not be able to operate
any airborne early-warning aircraft needed to provide comprehensive radar
coverage for fleets. This means the carrier will have limited area awareness,
unable to see or respond to threats beyond the horizon of ship-based radar.
Logistical constraints will also limit the time the carrier can spend at sea:
the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) possesses only five seaworthy
replenishment ships, none of them over 22,000 tons.
The biggest liability, however, will be inadequate protection. China has two
Type 52C destroyers with active phased array radar that enables them to track
multiple incoming missiles and aircraft - with four more under construction.
But integrating that radar with China's domestically developed HHQ-9 anti-air
missiles so they can shoot down supersonic sea-skimming missiles will prove
exceptionally challenging. Nor can the carrier rely on sub-surface protection.
Without very-low frequency radio communication systems, China's long range
patrol submarines would struggle to operate tactically in defense of a carrier
But even without these deficiencies, China's southern neighbors will likely
ensure that the South China Sea becomes too dangerous for China to risk sending
its prized carrier into contested waters.
In the first week of June, an article in Vietnam's state newspaper, Nhan Dan,
carried pictures of the world's fastest anti-ship missile, the Indo-Russian
BrahMos, in a clear statement of procurement intentions and its navy's
readiness to respond to incidents of Chinese aggression within waters it claims
as its exclusive economic zone. With a speed of Mach 2.8, the missile is four
times as fast as a US-made Tomahawk missile and would present a lethal threat
to any vessel within its 300-kilometer range. (Even with exceptional
anti-missile capabilities, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) navies
would keep well out of range of this threat.)
BrahMos procurement requires joint Indian and Russian approval, and Vietnam is
rapidly improving its relations with both nations. During a high profile
defense cooperation visit to New Delhi by Vietnam's navy chief at the end of
June, the Vietnamese government gave permission for Indian navy ships to drop
anchor at Nha Trang, which has been off-limits to foreign navies since 2003.
The offer followed an announcement on June 6 by Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi
Vinh that part of the strategic Cam Ranh Bay would be made available for
technical and logistical support of foreign military ships. To ensure that
China properly understood the significance of that offer, the announcement was
followed-up on August 14 with an unprecedented visit by senior Vietnamese
government officials to the American carrier, USS George Washington, as
it traversed the South China Sea.
On July 2, Vietnam also took a decisive step forward in its long-heralded
defense procurement deal with Russia. According to the Russian VNA newswire,
Oleg Azizov, representative of the Russian state defense export company
Rosoboronexport, confirmed Vietnam has signed a contract to buy six Kilo-636 MV
diesel electric submarines for delivery in 2014.
The 2,300 ton boats are optimized for shallow water operations and are
exceptionally quiet running. Without leaving port, these submarines would
provide a powerful deterrent to China against sending the carrier far into the
South China Sea in a possible confrontation situation. Malaysia already has
good submarine capabilities, with two recently commissioned French-designed
Scorpene class boats.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines could also quickly develop powerful
deterrent capabilities, and at relatively little cost by deploying anti-ship
missiles to key outposts. Indonesia has already held discussions with India to
acquire the BrahMos missile. The Philippines could either purchase US missiles
off-the-shelf, or negotiate purchase of Taiwan's new ram-jet Hsiung Feng III
anti-ship missile, unveiled with exquisite timing last week at the Taipei
Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition against a mural backdrop of a
The fact that the South China Sea will be an exceptionally dangerous
environment for the carrier will present the Chinese government with an acute
dilemma. The carrier is hugely popular in China, where it has been touted as a
symbol of the country's ascent to great-power status. Ardent online fans have
already christened the vessel Shi-Lang, after the 17th century
Taiwan-conquering admiral. And the government has invested vast political and
financial capital in the project, both in terms of the propaganda value of the
images and the cost of naval fighters and training establishments.
But the one nautical environment where Chinese opinion is most anxious for an
assertion of naval authority - the South China Sea - is the one place that
Chinese admirals will almost certainly never risk launching the carrier. With
this knowledge, the countries on the South China Sea's littoral have every
reason to welcome the carrier program. Indeed it may even strengthen their
claims, knowing that they can taunt China to send it out. In any looming
confrontation, the Chinese leadership will suddenly need to explain why its
totemic flagship is useless for asserting power in the country's own
self-claimed territorial waters or risk seeing it reduced, almost immediately,
to a flaming wreck.
Phil Radford is a freelance writer and specialist on naval strategy based
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