In part one of this two part posting, I looked at China's military capabilities through the eyes of the United States Department of Defense, focussing on the nation's missile capability. In part 2, I will take a closer look at recent developments in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, two areas that are certain to result in conflict of one sort or another in the future given America's penchant for sailing through the region.
Let's start by looking at China's territorial claim in the South China Sea along with its military outposts and the outposts of other nations:
In October 2015, an arbitral tribunal that was constituted at the request of the Philippines ruled that it has jurisdiction to rule on certain disputed territorial issues between the two nations and a ruling on the merits of the case is expected in 2016. China states that it will not abide by the decision of the tribunal.
China has spent a great deal of energy on land reclamation in the Spratley Islands, adding over 3200 acres of land to the seven features that it occupies in the past two years compared to only 50 acres by other claimants in the region. As part of its massive engineering effort in the region, China created artificial harbours, dredged and depend both natural harbours and channels and constructed new berthing areas that will allow larger ships to access its territory. In addition, communications, logistical and surveillance systems have been constructed on four features. On three features, China completed its reclamation projects in October 2015 and is developing 9800 foot long runways on each.
Let's take a look at how things have developed on five of these features:
In the case of the Fiery Cross Reef Outpost, the size of the exposed landmass grew substantially, from 2.5 acres to 665 acres. The feature now has a runway that is nearly 2.5 miles in length and a substantial berthing area for ships.
Now, let's look at two maps which show at least part of the reason why China is so interesting in staking its significant claim in the South China Sea. Here is a map showing the proven and probable oil reserves in the region:
Here is a map showing the flow of liquified natural gas in the region:
It is quite easy to see why China is so interested in claiming a very large portion of the South China Sea; it has both economic and military importance. With China importing 60 percent on its oil supply along with 27.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas supply in 2015, there is good reason for China's Communist Party to maintain control over the shipping lanes in the region as well as the potential for future hydrocarbon exploration and production. Additionally, the South China Sea shipping lanes bring 80 percent of the crude oil that is shipped to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Controlling the South China Sea would give China a great deal of diplomatic and strategic leverage over its neighbours.
Now, let's take a brief look at the Taiwan strategy. Since 1949 when the Kuomintang government was expelled from Mainland China by the Communist Party of China, the People's Republic of China has believed that Taiwan is destined to reunify with mainland China. During 2015, a meeting between China's President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou was the first such meeting between the leadership of both nations since 1946. Given that there is only 100 nautical miles separating the two nations, it would not be a stretch for China and its current increasingly sophisticated military technology to invade its neighbour. Taiwan's military advantage that has protected it for decades is greatly reduced by the massive expansion of China's military program. By way of comparison, Taiwan's annual military spending has declined to 2 percent of its GDP (compared to 9 percent for China) and China's official defense budget is now more than 14 times that of Taiwan's.
China has stated that there are certain circumstances under which it would use force to solve the Taiwan problem. These circumstances have changed over time and have included the following:
1.) formal declaration of Taiwan independence;
2.) undefined moves toward Taiwan independence;
3.) internal unrest on Taiwan;
4.)Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons;
5.) indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification;
6.) foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs;
7.) foreign forces stationed on Taiwan.
In the March 2005 Anti-Secession Law, China states that it may use "non-peaceful means" if "secessionist forces cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China" or if "possibilities for peaceful reunification" are exhausted. China could use one or more means to get Taiwan to "see things its way" as follows:
1.) Maritime Quarantaine or Blockade: China could force Taiwan-bound ships to stop in mainland ports for inspection or by declaring exercise or missile closure areas in Taiwan's port approach lanes. This is similar to what the PLA did during the 1995 - 1996 live-fire exercises.
2.) Limited Force or Coercive Options: China could use a number of disruptive or lethal military actions in a limited campaign against Taiwan including attacks on Taiwan's computer networks, military and economic infrastructure to cause unrest among Taiwan's populace.
3.) Air and Missile Campaign: Here is a map showing the range of China's missiles in reference to Taiwan: China could use missile attacks and air strikes to disable Taiwan's air defence system including its radar and missile systems.
4.) Amphibious Invasion: The Joint Landing Campaign is a complex military operation involving air and naval support to break through Taiwan's shore defense system and build a beachhead that would allow China to launch attacks to occupy Taiwan, in part or in whole. China's submarine fleet are also well positioned to assist in an invasion.
The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is prepared to conduct missile attacks against Taiwan's entire defense system and, as I showed in the first part of this two-part series, China's technological advances in its offensive missile systems has brought it to the forefront of the world's missile manufacturing nations. The great unknown in the China-Taiwan equation is the United States. Since 2009, the United States has sold more than $14 billion worth of arms to Taiwan as part of its support for Taiwan's independence. That said, if China were to amass a very large attack against Taiwan, it would take some time before U.S. forces, particularly its navy, could reach the region.
The U.S. Department of Defense report clearly shows us that China is now a very significant player in the world's military ecosystem, having made huge strides over the past decade and a half, and it appears that it could now hold its own against the world's sole remaining superpower. Over the coming decades, the changing demographic in China will have an impact on its economy which will ultimately have an impact on its ability to continue to fund 10 percent annual increases in military spending. On the other hand, the growing federal debt level in the United States will have an impact on its military spending, particularly if interest rates rise and the funding required to service interest owing on the debt take up a larger and larger portion of tax revenues.