Last update 6/30/2011 3:46:00 PM (GMT+7)

China flexes maritime muscle to ‘win war without fighting’

VietNamNet Bridge - As China prepares to start sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, possibly as early as July 1 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party, foreign analysts will be watching to see how quickly the Chinese Navy can bring its power projection ship into service.

It may not be smooth sailing. The handful of countries with carriers have spent years learning how to operate them.

Moreover, China's refurbished Soviet-era vessel, the Varyag bought from Ukraine in 1998, comes with inherent design limitations, even though it has been modernised. Its ski-jump launch deck and lack of a catapult system limit the munitions load on the combat jets it will have on board.

Their range will also be limited because the Varyag cannot launch refueling tankers to extend the distance the jets can fly from the carrier. Nor can it carry fixed-wing airborne early-warning planes. Instead it must use helicopters, a much less effective alternative.

The fighter-bomber chosen for the carrier by the Chinese military is the J-15, which has an airframe closely resembling the Russian Sukhoi Su-33. Although the J-15 is known as the ''Flying Shark'', the fleet on the carrier is ''no great leap forward'', according to two US analysts, Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson.

Writing on June 23 in the Tokyo-based online portal, The Diplomat, they said that the imminent launch of the Varyag was ''nevertheless triggering concern in the region because it indicates rapid improvement in Chinese naval aviation, and suggests Chinese determination to extend its regional blue water presence.'' They added that with advanced missiles, carrier-based J-15s could credibly threaten surface targets 500km away.

If the Varyag, and later a class of all-new carriers being built in China, are deployed in the South China Sea with surface warships and submarines as escorts, China's ability to enforce its controversial claims to control over much of the maritime heart of South East Asia will be greatly strengthened.

China is already the dominant naval power in the region although it lags well behind the United States, which is cooperating increasingly closely with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries with significant navies and coast guards to counterbalance Chinese forces.

Yet the focus on China's impressive military modernisation may overshadow another significant trend that is increasing its powers, over the short-term, in disputed waters of the South China Sea (East Sea) and in the East China Sea, where it is facing off against Japan. This is the rapid expansion of maritime law enforcement agencies and their integration as an arm of state policy under increasing control of the Navy.

Earlier this month, Chinese media reported on plans for a major enlargement of the China Maritime Surveillance Force, a paramilitary law enforcement agency that polices waters the Chinese says are under its jurisdiction even though they may be contested by other countries as they are in the East Sea by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

This force will get an extra 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by 2015, and boost its current 9000 personnel, mainly ex-Navy men, to 15,000 by 2020. The number of patrol vessels in the fleet will rise to 520 by 2020.

A majority of these ships are expected to be deployed in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea, where Japan and China have overlapping claims to islands, fisheries and seabed oil and gas reserves. At present, the China Maritime Surveillance Force South Sea fleet, one of three under the State Oceanic Administration, has only 13 patrol vessels, two planes and one helicopter. But other Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies also have fleets of ships to help enforce bans on fishing and oil and gas exploration in waters claimed by Beijing, which cover about 80 per cent of the East Sea.

They include the Maritime Safety Administration of China. It recently sent its biggest and most modern ship to Singapore in a show of resolve to defend Chinese claims from challenges by South-East Asian countries.

The Haixun 31 displaces 3000t, has a helicopter launch pad and can stay at sea for 40 days without refueling. It is a forerunner of the more capable surveillance vessels planned by China.

US and Asian officials say that another significant development is the Chinese Navy's program to organise a maritime militia drawn from fishing fleets. Dr Erickson, a China specialist at the US Naval War College, says he has concluded that China ''does not want to start a war, but rather seeks to wield its growing military might to 'win without fighting' by deterring actions that it views as detrimental to its core national interests.''

In the past few years, Chinese fishing boats have joined patrol craft from the maritime law enforcement agencies in apparently coordinated operations to harass US surveillance ships and South-East Asian oil and gas survey vessels in the East Sea, as well as Japan Coast Guard patrol ships in the East China Sea.

Such tactics make it difficult to pin the blame on China's Navy. But they are provocative and not conducive to maintaining peace in the region.

Michael Richardson (Canberra Times)
(The writer is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore)