The threat beneath the waves of the South China Sea

Artificial islands above water, and nuclear submarines below

Malcolm Cook

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

13 April 2016

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 .

More on this: Turning the tide in the South China Sea | Yun Sun

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.

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9 Responses

  1. willie c sabado says:

    May the best for Philippines and other disputants claim
    be attained in the near offing.

  2. Ali Montecillo says:

    as far back 2013-2014, secretary almonte, the national security adviser of former president ramos predicted that china’s claim of almost the whole of south china sea is predicated on acquiring a deep water base for its navy, in particular its nuclear submarines. now it is proven true.

  3. Sannie Evan Malala says:

    People love peace. Who don’t want an easy life without worrying that others will assault you. But this desire for a secured life don’t just come because people desire it. In this world there are always people who will device scheme and exploit others for their ends . It may range from manipulation of circumstances so that others will serve them to a more brutish seizing of properties of others, and, if yet left unchecked, to slavery.

    This is also true in many aspect in South China Sea crisis. Slowly but surely, in calibrated steps, China expands geographically, economically and militarily. Its acquisition of other countries EEZs including the international waters through its released Nine-Dashed Line is only the tip of the iceberg of its master plan for regional hegemony and international supremacy.

    People don’t want war. They don’t want that their present ease and enjoyment of a prosperous life will be disrupted by war. Almost all people want to settle this issue through diplomacy. But will diplomacy work towards China? China always maintain the validity of its claim despite the protest of other nations against her. She refuses to participate in the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration. And despite the call of other nations to resolve the crises through established rules China, with deaf ears, pushed its way through and forcefully seized the territories of its smaller neighbours and immediately completed the manufacturing of its artificial islands. Her production of war vessels and other weapons was also accelerated. Her officials and agents always maintain the legality of their claim and shows no indication to withdraw or sincerely back off. China is confident that economic sanctions will not have significant effect against her bid for power.

    So the now question is this: Is war a necessity? Based on the actions of China, she is determined not to back down from her plans. And people of other nations are unwilling and apprehensive to go in a full scale conflict with China. China is confident that other countries will not engage to her and she is cleverly showing to be tough and heavily and nuclearly armed.

    If China will be left unchecked I can see chaos and prevalence of injustice in the world’s future. Are today’s expected war damages really worth for the continued existence of peace, order and justice in the future? Or should we wait for the future to really see the results of the present plans and actions of China? If that time comes, will people be already willing to pay the high price of freedom, of peace and order, and of justice?

    When is the right time to act to stand for what is right. The answer is on the hands of every people in the world. The consequences of their decisions will also be on theirs. And no one can escape those consequences.

  4. RUCELO BUSCAGAN says:

    “Territorial dispute has nothing to do with humanity; instead joint exploration together of all claimant countries by giving equal distribution of wealth for the mutual benefit of its citizen. We are not bound for war and greediness for energy and natural resources; it is the essence of sharing for the mutual benefits of entire humanity.” -RUCELO NITUDA BUSCAGAN, Bohol, Philippines

  5. Lvic says:

    PARACEL ISLANDS & SPRATLY ISLANDS BELONG TO VIETNAM …

  6. Napo Aguila says:

    Study suggests that the Philippines is the ancestral homeland of Polynesians

    http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-evolution-human-origins/new-study-suggests-philippines-ancestral-homeland-polynesians-001463

    The nine dash line is invalid. The south china sea belongs to the lapita people, polynesians/ Austronesians. Histroically speaking it should be renamed the “Austronesian sea” and returned to its people

  7. Ivan says:

    We all want peace. Whether this Land is yours or Mine, we’re all inhabitants of the Earth. The stronger and more technologically advanced countries should share the natural resources with less developed countries….in harmony. This is just a dream that anyone wishes to see, at least for sake of the next generation. In reality, World leaders seem to put their EGO as their Top agenda.

    • adrian s dcunha says:

      You are not the only one Ivan, to dream about this for the sake of the next generation. Lets hope that the future makes us all earthly inhabitants more co operative towards each other and helps to transform this Dream to Reality.

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Citation

Cook, M. (2016). The threat beneath the waves of the South China Sea - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/the-threat-beneath-the-waves-of-the-south-china-sea/ [Accessed 15 Jun. 2016].

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