As tensions mount in the South China Sea, China has deployed its first operational nuclear-armed submarines in the undisputed Chinese waters on Hainan Island, which could pose an even greater danger to security in the region, Malcolm Cook writes.
The ripples of unease over China’s actions in the South China Sea are being felt across the world, but an even greater threat could lie beneath the ocean.
The decisions to rapidly build a number of large, military-grade artificial islands in the disputed Spratly islands and to enhance Chinese military activity on Woody Island in the Paracels have raised concerns about China’s long-term intentions in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Taiwan was the first to raise the alarm over Woody Island, the European Union was critical, and ASEAN – a consensus-based organisation not known for bluntness – adopted the sharpest language yet,. There are signs that Malaysia, long seen as the quietest, most diplomatic Southeast Asian disputant in the South China Sea, may also push back against China and work more closely with fellow disputants the Philippines and Vietnam.
These increasingly vocal concerns in Southeast Asia are grounded in three deep strategic fears. Firstly, that China is seeking to control the features and waters within the nine (sometimes 10)-dash line that covers over 80 per cent of the sea that links maritime Southeast Asia to each other and the rest of the world.
China’s current actions are also perceived as a worrying harbinger for how the country will act in the future as its power asymmetries with the “peripheral” states of Southeast Asia grow, and its power asymmetry with the United States reduces.
In addition, the South China Sea is or risks becoming a major arena of US-China strategic competition, undermining Southeast Asian states’ influence, autonomy and security, and ASEAN centrality and unity. This neuralgic fear was given voice in the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs’ sharp response to the US October 2015 freedom of navigation operation in the Spratlys .
To borrow a polar maritime analogy, China’s artificial islands may be the proverbial tips of a major iceberg where the real threat lurks below. There are signs that the artificial islands are also there to support growing Chinese submarine activities, which should deepen existing fears.
China has deployed its first operational nuclear armed submarines (SSBNs) on Hainan Island in the undisputed Chinese waters of the South China Sea. Yet, for this nuclear capability to pose a threat to the US mainland and make Chinese nuclear deterrence credible, these SSBNs will have to sail the breadth of the northern South China Sea and access the Western Pacific, most likely through the Luzon Strait between the northern Philippines and southern Taiwan. Similarly, to escape to the safer, less congested waters of the Indian Ocean, these less-than-stealthy SSBNs would have to sail the length of the South China Sea and exit through the Straits of Malacca, or further south through Indonesia’s Sunda Strait.
The deployment of China’s sea-based nuclear strike capability on Hainan Island changes the strategic significance of the South China Sea in a way that aggravates Southeast Asian fears. For China to protect its most important, expensive and vulnerable asset in its military rivalry with the US, China will need to have much more confidence in its ability to control the South China Sea. The artificial islands and their clear military uses could well be part of an extended bastion strategy to defend these SSBNs.
The US now has a vital homeland defence interest in being able to track these Chinese submarines in the South China Sea in times of non-conflict, and block them from the Western Pacific in other times.
The docking of US hunter killer submarines in January at Subic Bay in the Philippines is a sign of heightened interest. The US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, now that it has passed muster with the Philippine Supreme Court, will significantly revive the US-Philippine alliance in ways that benefit this US interest. The agreements with Singapore and Malaysia over supporting US P-8 flights also align with this heightened American interest.
Japanese submarines and anti-submarine warfare assets are a major feature of the military side of Japan’s ongoing rebalance to Southeast Asia. A Japanese submarine will visit the Philippines in April, the first such visit in 15 years, and two of the escort ships are then scheduled to make a historic visit to Vietnam’s Cam Rahn Bay. Last year, Japanese P-3C surveillance planes with anti-submarine warfare capabilities participated in bilateral exercises with the Philippines off the coast of Palawan, with Tokyo encouraging Manila to purchase some. While submarines were the big winners (in announcement terms) in Australia’s 2009 defence white paper, anti-submarine warfare capabilities more broadly are in the recently launched 2016 defence white paper, a document that stressed Australia’s enduring security interests in the South China Sea to Beijing’s ire.
Chinese military actions in the South China Sea above and below the waves are turning the whole South China Sea into a major arena of US-China strategic and military rivalry. China is seeking greater control over the waters and land features it claims, while the active US interest, and that of its allies, including the Philippines, in countering China’s military actions is growing. China’s sovereignty-challenging actions also are putting greater pressure on the Southeast Asian states with maritime boundary disputes with China, and increasing their demands for ASEAN to do more. The Philippines was widely criticised in the region in 2012 for taking China to court over their South China Sea dispute, siding closer with the US, and demanding ASEAN take a stronger stance. Today, these steps look less reckless and more prescient.