East Sea chessboard - the scenario for 2030

VietNamNet Bridge - Prof. Alexander Vuving has warned that if other countries do not take strong steps right now, the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) will be controlled by China.

Bàn cờ biển Đông – kịch bản 2030

The report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of the United States in January 2016 warned that by 2030, China may own so many carriers to the extent that the regular presence of Chinese carrier fleet enough to turn the East Sea into a "lake" of China. 

Prof. Alexander Vuving, from the Center for Asia-Pacific Security Studies (USA) also said that if other countries do not take strong steps right now, in the future the East Sea will be controlled by China.

The CSIS report is remarkable and I'm not surprised. In the next 15 years, China will be completely strong enough to built 2-3 more carriers besides the Liaoning carrier. Since China is focusing its military power to control the waters within the first island chain, ie the East Sea and the South China Sea, so in 2030, it is not strange if China has 1-2 carriers permanently in the Sea East. 

At that time, with these carriers plus air-naval bases on the islands in the Paracels and Spratlys that are occupied by China, if other countries do not have strong steps right now, the East Sea will become China's pond.

China's Defense White Paper frankly proclaimed "the Chinese Army (PLA) in the near future will operate beyond the first island chain, as well as to move into the Indian Ocean". An a question is raised: How will China’s hegemonic ambition threaten the US’ balance of power in East Sea?

In East Asia, China has the advantage of distance. While the US is a global power, and it can focus only 60% - 70% of its forces in Asia, China is a regional power, and it is able to focus 100% of its forces here. Therefore when comparing the balance of power between the two countries, if China reaches just 60% of the US power, then they can compete equally with the US in the region.

Particularly in the East Sea, China could have an aircraft carrier and dozens of fighters of the 4th generation, plus many surface ships, submarines that are regularly on duty here. At present, on average the US makes one patrol a day in the East Sea while a dozen of Chinese vessels patrol this water each day.

In the future, the Chinese tend to narrow the gap on the hard power with the US. According to my research (published in several journals), the high growth phase of China will end in the next 5 years. Then it is very highly possible that China will fall into a financial – economic crisis, which can bring about political volatility. Yet China still significantly narrows the gap of hard power with the US.

If we take the "high-tech GDP", which is part of GDP produced by the high-tech industry, as an indicator of hard power, then in 2010, China's hard power was equivalent with about 21% of the US is and about 72% of Japan. But by 2020, China's hard power will amount to about 44% of the US and about 1.7 times over that of Japan. By 2030, China's hard power can be 60% of the US and three times over that of Japan. 

In the case of prolonged and severe crisis in China, high-tech GDP of China in 2030 may be still equivalent to 30-40% of the US. Thus in any case, the gap between China and the US for the hard power will be still narrowed.

Three "moves" to 2040 of China

Bàn cờ biển Đông – kịch bản 2030

Satellite image taken on 14/2 (left) shows a number of surface-to-air missile launchers of China in Vietnam's Phu Lam (Woody) island. Photo: ImageSat International

China’s naval development strategy that CSIS report mentioned includes three phases. From 2000 to 2010, China aims to establish control of the waters within the first island chain from Okinawa to Taiwan and the Philippines. 

From 2010 to 2020, China will seek control of the waters in the second island chain, from Ogasawara island chain to Guam and Indonesia. 

Finally, from 2020 to 2040, China wants to replace the US to dominate the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean, using carriers as the key forces to control the sea.

However, until this time (the second phase), China has been unable to set up its dominance over the first island chain. I think China cannot control the waters inside the second island chain if they cannot control the waters within the first island chain. 

To gain control here, China implement the strategy of gradual penetration into the gray area, ie causing crisis and tension, but not to lead to armed clashes. That's the way they did when they cut the cables of a Vietnamese vessels in 2011, occupied the Scarborough Shoal of the Philippines in 2012, sending the HD-981 drilling rig to the waters of Vietnam in 2014, and built artificial islands in the Spratlys Islands since 2013, as well as constantly struck and rob Vietnam’s fishing boats for years.

The island that China occupied in the Paracels and Spratlys Islands will form the basis of logistics and infrastructure for China to deploy dozens of aircraft, warships, and hundreds of fishing boats to control the entire East Sea under the three-dimensions: the sky, the water, and underwater. China currently has many warships, Coast Guard ships, submarines in the East Sea.

Later they will have permanent carriers here, bringing the number of permanent aircraft in the region to the level that can overwhelm other countries. 

China has not announced an air defense identification zone in the East Sea, but they will apply the unilateral provisions of all kinds, ie they make the possession and control in fact, then turn into a fait accompli after other countries accept them as a fact that cannot be changed.

Quoc An

East Sea chessboard - the scenario for 2030