China’s ‘Sea-Sickness’ is Far from Over

Albeit in line with the predecessor’s dream of national rejuvenation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become unequivocally audacious, in recent decades, to posit China to its ‘rightful place’ in the international system. Speaking at the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping set ambitions high by assuming a ‘center stage’ for China and making it ‘a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence’ by the centenary of CCP’s establishment. This central position or ‘global leadership’ would necessarily warrant displacing the current hegemon—the US —from the international hierarchy, as exemplified by Xi’s aim of transforming the armed forces into ‘world-class forces’ by 2049.

With Russia being bogged down in the Ukraine conflict, India being defensive, and other land neighbours too insignificant to challenge China, the Eastern maritime frontier space has become a desideratum for China. The development of power projection in its Eastern front is also shaped by historical apprehensions, where the Opium Wars, the Sino-French Naval War, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Rebellion, which compromised Chinese sovereignty, were all sea-borne. Unsurprisingly, the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS)’s The Science of Military Strategy claimed that ‘Today and for a long time to come, our [Chinese] country’s […] national security is threatened mainly from the sea’ and ‘the threat of war in the east is more serious than the threat of war in the west’.

The historical fear, nationalist fervour, and the greatest naval threat from the US in the east would mean China needs a naval strategy to control its eastern domain where it has the highest stake— Taiwan (being the most prioritised goal), claims in the South China Sea (SCS), and its other maritime interests. However, to become a global power occupying a centre stage, as envisaged by Xi, would mean transcending the region first i.e. becoming a regional hegemon. The most significant step in this direction is China’s heavy investments in Anti-Access/Area-Denial or A2/AD capabilities. 

Especially with the American ‘rebalance’ to Asia and the Pacific, China is increasingly involved in the A2/AD strategy to deny the US, which is the biggest threat to its nationalist juggernaut, easy access to the Western Pacific. Though it is not a winning strategy, it aims at inflicting severe costs on the movement of the opponents in the region. China’s extensive network of A2/AD around the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Strait of Taiwan includes Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs), Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs), Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), a large fleet of submarines, surface ships, fighter jets, bombers, and other naval and aerial capabilities. 

Chinese ASBMs include a large collection of short-, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with the DF-21D and the DF-26 reportedly capable of breaking through the American AEGIS system and striking aircraft carriers up to the US naval base in Guam, respectively. Chinese ASCMs including YJ-100, YJ-12, and YJ-18 have a range of up to 800 km and are very hard to intercept due to low altitude. Likewise, China possesses indigenous HQ-11 (short-range), HQ-9B (medium-range), and HQ-16FE (medium-long range) along with Russian-origin S-300 and S-400 SAMs. Chinese air fleet includes all-weather fourth-generation Shenyang J-15/J-16 and Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter aircraft and H-6K bombers with Chinese J-15D, J-16D, and J-10D aircraft having the potential to wage electronic warfare (EW) to dismantle adversary’s communication and command systems. Moreover, China primarily operates three submarines— the nuclear-powered Shang Type 093 attack submarine, the Jin Type 094 ballistic missile submarine, and a large fleet of Yuan Type 039 diesel-powered attack submarines.

Albeit Chinese A2/AD capabilities are highly networked till the ‘First Island Chain’ (spanning from Japan’s Kyushu to Okinawa, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines to central Vietnam), it is mired with inherent limitations. China is lacking a sufficient number of nuclear-powered submarines vis-à-vis American advanced and qualitatively superior submarines. Notably, though China may have stationed short- to long-range missiles of all sorts, capable of challenging the adversary’s presence, on its artificial islands in the SCS, their crucial component—radar —that is essential for guiding a missile is constrained by the low curvature of the earth and subsequent constrained sensor coverage. 

To enhance the coverage of radar on the militarised islands in the SCS, China has deployed over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, however, this is useful only for early warning and would require very low frequencies for the resolution needed for hitting targets. Moreover, even early warning functions require ‘fixed installations that are inherently vulnerable’. Alternatively, radars installed in aircraft are hard to defend and are equally vulnerable to adversary’s anti-radiation missiles (ARMs). Trying to enhance the line-of-sight of radar using aircraft would provide adversaries with a structural advantage by exposing the transmission’s location. As radar’s signals travel, they spread out and weaken and the signal is required to travel to the target and back again to the transmitter to launch any missiles— this, however, gives enough signal and time to the target to launch ARMs. Likewise, satellite-based radars are vulnerable to America’s Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon system in an all-out war and ship-based radars are hard to disguise given the absence of a ‘complex background’ and large size of vessels make them easily detectable in an open sea. 

As we fathom into the future, China’s bid to control its ‘sphere of influence’ would be frustrating owing to the presence of the US troops and military paraphernalia in the region, Taiwan’s boosting of its A2/AD capabilities, and American allies’ military and technological improvements. The rhetoric that China is shifting from ‘sea-denial’ to ‘sea-control’ is exaggerated for the time being. Even with upgraded military installations on the Spratly Islands, vessels and aircraft (flying at low altitudes)  can manoeuvre through the region and are hard to detect by radars. It would be difficult for China to extend the range of its A2/AD capabilities beyond the ‘first island chain’ and, at most, the region would be of competing spheres of influence where China and adversaries would create a ‘zone of mutual exclusion’, where the movement of both sides are highly constrained. A ‘sea-sickness’ still haunts the CCP as it is struggling to control the region exclusively and is unable to reunify Taiwan at ‘affordable’ costs. As Xi has used nationalistic indoctrination, more than his predecessors, to vindicate the CCP’s rule, the survival of the regime would be in question as Chinese international adventures smack of frustrations.

[Photo by U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

Anshu Kumar is a Master’s student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has worked at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, previously. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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