Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 15, 2020
The Chinese buildup continues — if the US has its B-21, the Chinese are planning to field their H-20.
US-China tensions: A slow road to conflict?

Earlier this month, the Chinese media carried reports of exercises being carried out by the PLA’s new marine force. They range from taking out a pirate in the South China Sea to the boarding of a hijacked ship in the Gulf of Aden. A report in the Global Times spoke about the new Marine Corps, which is part of the PLA Navy, as a “multidimensional force” that operates in all terrains around the world “to protect China’s growing overseas interests.”

A year earlier, in April 2019, China announced that it had expanded and upgraded its marine force and made it a distinct unit. But according to the 2018 US Department of Defence report on China, “one of the most significant PLAN structural changes in 2017 was the expansion of the PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC).” This had expanded to two brigades, but by 2020, this could consist of seven brigades with 30,000 or so personnel who would be capable of expeditionary operations and could have an independent aviation component.

Like the US Marines, the Chinese outfit has multidimensional abilities. Using their Type 075 amphibious assault ships, or helicopter landing docks, the marines have a vertical envelopment capability which is clearly targeting operations in the island territories of the South China Sea and possibly in the region around China’s base in Djibouti. The PLAN’s second ship of this kind was launched last month and is very clearly seen as a means of dealing with “the Taiwan question and the South China Sea.” The first, a 40,000 ton vessel, was launched last September, a testimony to the speed with which China is building up its capabilities. At present, PLAN operates older Type 071 amphibious landing docks.

Like the US Marines, the Chinese outfit has multidimensional abilities.

But the Chinese Marines are only part of a larger Chinese force posture in the Western Pacific that focused on the so-called A2/AD (Anti-Access, Area Denial) capabilities. These would involve the use of medium range missiles to target US warships, military facilities, and command centres. This would be accompanied by a cyber blitz targeting GPS system and jamming communications.

In recent years we have been witnessing a rising tempo of US-China military competition in this region. Over the past few months, both sides have accused each other of amplifying military pressure in the region, including after the outbreak of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Indonesia complained in December when a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by an armed coast guard escort entered the waters of Natuna islands which are within the country’s EEZ.

2. In mid-January, a six-ship PLAN flotilla returned to their base in Hainan Island after a 41-day live fire exercise in the western Pacific. This was the longest and largest exercise of its kind in two years, taking the ships across the International Date Line and traveling more than 14,000 nautical miles.

3. The US carried out its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOPS) in 2020 by sailing the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery near the Fiery Cross Reef where China has built a military base. The US has carried out more FONOPS in 2019 than in any year since it began them in 2015.

4. In early February, the PLA carried out drills close to Taiwan, compelling its Air Force to intercept Chinese jets that had crossed into its air space. Taiwanese jets also followed Chinese fighters and bombers that flew around the island.

5. In February, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, an expeditionary strike group and a Marine Expeditionary Unit began expeditionary strike force training drill in the South China Sea that carried on till the middle of March.

6. In early March, China conducted joint air force and navy drills to simulate encounters with invading aircraft and warships in the South China Sea. A month later, on 11 April, the aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed by the eastern and southern coasts of Taiwan through the Miyako Straits triggering alarm in Taipei and Tokyo.

7. In the third week of April, an Australian warship joined three US ships, including the USS Barry and the Bunker Hill to conduct exercises in the South China Sea. Later, Bunker Hill carried out a FONOP near the Paracel islands. And on 28 April China said its Southern Theatre Command had “expelled” a US destroyer USS Barry when it trespassed into Chinese waters in the Spratly Islands.

8. At the end of April, a Chinese aircraft carrier task force led by the Liaoning carried out a “deep sea cross-regional exercise” and mock drills in the South China Sea. Billed as a routine training exercise, the flotilla went around Taiwan and returned to its base after transiting the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait.

9. In early May, the US sent a pair of ships to patrol in an area disputed between China and Malaysia in the South China Sea. The aim was to deter Chinese interference in a Malaysian contracted drilling operation that is being challenged by China.

10. The tensions in the region were also heightened by two incidents of boats being rammed and sunk. In one case, in early April, the Chinese claimed that a Vietnamese fishing boat rammed a Chinese coast guard vessel and sank. The Vietnamese accused the Chinese of deliberately sinking the boat. In the other instance at the end of March, Japan says that its destroyer had collided with a Chinese fishing boat and injured one person in the East China Sea.

Not surprisingly, both sides are claiming that the other has been responsible for aggressive behaviour. But clearly, as the pattern indicates, this is part of their ongoing operations in the region where the Chinese are seeking to keep the US away from the mainland, and the latter is maintaining, if not boosting, its capabilities to check the growth of Chinese power.

Both sides are claiming that the other has been responsible for aggressive behaviour.

But both sides are also clearly feeling vulnerable. Both economies have been severely battered by COVID-19, and in the case of the US, the publicised problem of infection on board its carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan, could not but have caused some nervousness.

This probably triggered a show of aerial force by the US. At the end of April, two US B-1B stealth bombers flew a 32-hour round-trip mission to conduct operations over the South China Sea as part of a joint bomber task force of the US Indo-Pacific Command. Actually, the US is reducing its bomber presence in Guam, and plans to work on the B-21 bomber that could be deployed in another five years. Longer range American planning confirms that the focus on the Indo-Pacific is here to stay.

The US Marines are making a major pivot away from their Middle Eastern focus to the western Pacific, the region that earned them fame in World War II. After years of classified war games showing how China’s missiles and naval forces were eroding US strength in the region, the Marines have unfolded a 10-year transformation plan.

As part of this, they are bringing down numbers and getting rid of their tanks and reducing their aircraft. In keeping with their tradition, the Marines would re-orient themselves to fight through the Chinese capabilities in the region, rather than adopt a standoff posture. This is part of a wider US military change, backed by huge budgetary support provided by the Trump administration.

In keeping with their tradition, the Marines would re-orient themselves to fight through the Chinese capabilities in the region, rather than adopt a standoff posture.

As part of this, the US is acting to neutralise China’s missile advantage in the western Pacific. So far, because of the INF, the US was restricted in its ability to deploy the kind of land based systems and cruise missiles that Beijing has by the hundreds in the mainland adjacent to the region, targeting Japan, Taiwan, Guam, and other US facilities in the region. Now, after the US has walked out of the INF, the Marines will be armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles which will be deployed with them across the first island chain and other points in the western Pacific. This is only the beginning of a process that would see the deployment of ground-launched intermediate range missiles in the Indo-Pacific region to neutralise the Chinese advantage.

Meanwhile the Chinese buildup also continues. If the US has its B-21, the Chinese are planning to field their H-20. They are also developing their second strike capability through a new Type 096 nuclear submarine that will host the JL-3 missile. The US has, as yet, no defence against their highly accurate DF-17 conventional missile with a hypersonic warhead that can hit ships and command posts.

There are concerns in Beijing that the changes in the US nuclear posture, specifically the addition of low-yield nuclear weapons to its arsenal, has negative implications for them. The Chinese nuclear arsenal is a fraction of that of the US, and this causes nervousness. In a recent trial balloon, Hu XIjin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times suggested that Beijing add 1,000 nuclear warheads to its arsenal and acquire 100 more DF-41 road-mobile missiles capable of hitting the US. The Chinese official spokeswoman termed Hu’s proposal as his “personal views.”

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

Read More +