It is getting petulant again in the resource-rich waters of the East and South China Seas. Tokyo has protested to Beijing about a Chinese helicopter buzzing a Japanese destroyer close to a disputed natural gas field the East China Sea. Last week, Chinese boats allegedly tried to ram a Philippines ship doing seismic testing for natural resources in the South China Sea. Last month, Vietnam complained about Chinese naval exercises near the Spratly Islands, also in the South China Sea. Last year, Tokyo and Beijing has a serious stand-off over the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain who clashed with Japanese coastguards near a group of disputed islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyus in Chinese.
These incidents do nothing to diminish the concerns of China’s regional neighbors about Beijing’s build up of its navy and growing willingness to flex its muscles in the waters off its shores. We have been expecting Beijing to be repeatedly testing how far it can push its neighbors and we see little reason that that won’t continue. The next level of this will be a coordinated response from the neighbors (and closer cooperation with Washington), ratcheting up tensions even more.
China’s resumption of double-digit growth in its military budget for 2011 will prompt the usual alarms, but it represents no more than a return to business as usual. Last year was only the second since 1989, when Beijing launched its PLA modernization program, that China hasn’t increased its military budget by double digits, in keeping with its long-term economic growth and quest for global and regional influence. The proposed 12.6% increase for 2011 to 583.6 billion yuan ($88.9 billion) is actually a tad below the long-term average of 12.8% since 1989.
That modernization drive took China to being the world’s no 2 defense-spender in 2008 after the U.S., which still spends at least four times as much as China on its military, even accounting for China’s off-budget military spending, which has been guesstimated to take the total to $100 billion-150 billion. Foreign weapons-systems acquisitions, military-related R&D, the paramilitary security forces and some expenses for peacekeeping and disaster relief operations are all off-budget as is income from the PLA’s commercial enterprises and defense industries, and international arms sales.
Part of the latest increase is to cover inflation in pay, benefits and basic provisioning for active military personnel and veterans. Pay and benefits for the 2.3 million-strong PLA already account for 35% of the official military budget. They are expected to see a big increase in step with the civilian pay rises being seen and planned for the economy as a whole (the new five-year plan envisions a tripling of the average wage for factory workers). That is also a sign at this time of significant political, economic and social transition that the Party leadership wants to be sure that it has the PLA onside, just as the higher and more assertive profile of the military in recent months is confirmation of the military’s continued political clout in the highest circles.
Beijing’s claims that its military programmes are purely defensive are not generally accepted, which suggests a continuing arms race in Asia (India, for example, is proposing a larger percentage increase in its military budget for 2011 than China). There is no doubt that there is to be no cutting back on the build-up of China’s military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, and the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure. But China has been doing that for years. The 2011 military budget just keeps it on track.
Footage has appeared on the internet said to be the disused aircraft carrier hull China bought from Russia in 1998 and has been fitting out in Dalian. Work on the 58,500-ton Varyag appears to have been progressing rapidly. In the second half of the clip (via YouKu or, below, via YouTube), which changes from color to grainy black and white, the vessel is seen under power and taking an aircraft landing on its deck.
Due to come into service next year, the Varyag is being turned into a training carrier for the crews that will man China’s fleet of indigenous carriers now being built.
Aircraft carriers are the big swinging ships of naval power. One reason that Beijing has been so insistent about the U.S. keeping its carriers out of the Yellow Sea (successfully on one occasion this year, not so with the more recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises) is that carriers are a blatant display of the ability to project power far from home. It was embarrassing that Washington could do that but not Beijing. It has been widely assumed outside China that part of the PLA’s much-scrutinized rapid expansion of its navy would include a first carrier, and some circumstantial evidence has suggested that work was under way.
Now Japan’s Asahi newspaper has turned up the first Chinese confirmation of that being the case, having spotted a line buried in a State Oceanic Administration annual report published, remarkably, last May but, even more remarkably, overlooked by the rest of the world until now (that assumption subject to subsequent testing by WikiLeaks, of course).
South Korean intelligence sources believe two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered carriers are being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020. Meanwhile, China has bought the unfinished hull of a former Soviet Union carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag. This it is turning into a training carrier in Dalian that is due to be in service in 2012.
The carrier programe started last year, according to the SOA. “This shows that China has started entering a new historic era of comprehensively building itself into a great naval power.”
That promises to change the security balance in the western Pacific. Japan’s announcement of a new defense strategy recognizes China’s growing naval power in and around its own waters, which it describes as an “issue of concern for the regional and international communities”. Beijing has issued the predictable rebuff that it has no intention of threatening anybody. Regardless, Japan plans to boost its maritime and air surveillance capabilities (against North Korea as well as China), bolster its troops on its southern Islands, and upgrade its submarine fleet, as Beijing is doing with its. Anchors aweigh.
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What catches this Bystander’s eye in the U.S. Defense Dept’s newly published assessment of China’s military capabilities is the expansion of the navy, particularly its submarine fleet. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy can now deploy the world’s largest number of conventionally powered submarines, the result of a decade-and-a-half long program of building and modernizing the fleet which has been putting three new boats a year into the water.
China’s newest Song-class submarines, of which it has at least 13, are capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of 100 nautical miles while beneath the waves. It also has a dozen Russian Kilo-class subs with similar capabilities. The PLA-N has also being developing its newer Yang subs, capable of staying submerged for up to a fortnight, more than three times longer than its older subs.
It is also building a new generation of nuclear powered subs, including the new Jin-class, some of which will carry ballistic missiles with a range of 4,000 nautical miles, sufficient to reach western U.S. states, though the program is not going altogether smoothly by all accounts (more detail — and a more sanguine view of all this — a the FAS Strategic Security Blog) . If the problems can be ironed out, the Jin-class subs, which will be based at Hainan Island facing the strategically sensitive South China Sea, will give China a sea-going nuclear deterrent for the first time.
This all amounts to a clear challenge to America’s traditional naval dominance of the Western Pacific, and most immediately Washington’s ability to go to the aid of Taipei in the event of an armed conflict. But the capability of the navy being built by Beijing could support the conduct of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan. It potentially changes the regional security balance significantly. America’s Defense Dept. policymakers are rightly concerned by China’s military build-up, of which the submarine fleet is a leading edge.
It is conventionally held that to be considered a superpower, a nation needs to have economic, diplomatic and military power and the ability and appetite to project it around the world. Piece by piece, sub by sub, China is getting there.
An update to yesterday’s post about China considering sending warships to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia: Bloomberg is reporting that the Foreign Ministry has confirmed preparations are in hand, without giving details of what vessels will be sent.
Piracy against Chinese ships seems more prevelant than thought. A ministry spokesman said that in the first 11 months of the year, 1,265 Chinese commercial ships passed through Somali waters, or about three to four a day, a fifth of which were assaulted by pirates.