In his determination to boost the PRC‘s status as world power, Chinese President Xi Jinping is proving to be an adept player of his maritime cards.
Little is seen of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) vast land forces, but the PLA Navy is playing a major role in advancing Xi’s ambitions, by pursuing, in parallel with highly proactive operations in the South China Sea (SCS), a programme of multilateral exercises with foreign navies, and official visits to overseas ports.
Backing up all this activity is a programme of warship construction that includes aircraft carriers, Type 055 “super destroyers”, new designs of large amphibious warfare vessels nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile-equipped nuclear powered submarines (SSBN), and support ships.
The last two years have seen Beijing place ever greater emphasis upon sea control, particularly the SCS, and the seas around the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea, with PLA Navy warships sometimes working in conjunction China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ships, and “fishing vessels” of the China Maritime Militia.
Many analysts believe that a major motivation behind Beijing’s moves to dominate the SCS is to ensure a protected operating area, within range of the eastern United States, for PLA Navy SSBNs. Some also believe that China wants to establish a de facto tributary relationship with SCS contiguous states.
The PLA Navy corvette Liupanshui, in February this year illuminated the patrolling Philippine Navy corvette Conrado Yap, with its fire control radar, a move which is internationally recognised as being aggressive.
In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed, and sunk, off the Paracel islands by a Chinese vessel, which has very recently been identified, in some reports, as CCG 4301. Later in the month, two CCG, and eight Maritime Militia vessels, escorted a Chinese survey ship operating within Malaysia’s EEZ, while at least one PLA Navy warship patrolled nearby. At the time, the US Navy’s regionally-allocated aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt had been temporarily withdrawn from service, as many of its crew were infected with the Covid-19 virus.
Therefore, in response, a US Navy Strike Group, made up of the Japan-based F-35B fighter bomber-equipped amphibious warfare vessel America, the cruiser Bunker Hill and destroyer Barry was dispatched to the scene at high speed.
The destroyer and the cruiser subsequently carried out a prolonged freedom of navigation operation, passing within 12 nautical miles of such strategically important, China-claimed, features as Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Woody Island, while a number of US Air Force B1 bombers reportedly carried out exercises over the area.
Relations between Taipei and Beijing have, in recent years, become fraught, and now comes news that the PLA Navy is preparing an exercise, scheduled to be held in June this year, on and around the PRC’s Hainan Island, to rehearse the invasion of Pratas Reef (Dongsha), a Taiwanese-garrisoned outcrop, situated some 170 nautical miles southeast of Hong Kong.
Beijing is doubtless factoring in the fact that the US Congress’ Taiwan Relations Act requires the US to come to the aid of Taipei in the event of a PRC attack on Formosa, or the Pescadores (Penghu), situated in the Taiwan Straits, but excludes Taiwan’s more distant territories.
Some analysts believe that a successful invasion of Pratas Reef might be followed by an attack upon another Taiwan-manned islet, namely Taiping (Itu Abu), the largest and most habitable of the Spratly islands in the SCS. The two Taiwanese outposts, which are manned by Taiwan Coast Guard Administration (TCGA), retain some strategic value, particularly as both feature airfields, but the main advantage to be reaped by the PRC by their seizure would probably be political.
It is likely that any attack would be preceded by a prolonged sea control and blockade operation by paramilitary vessels of the vast, and still expanding, CCG fleet, which is constantly active in the SCS. In response to this possibility, a major TCGA fleet modernisation and expansion programme is underway.
Work has commenced on the first of a projected four 4,000-tonne patrol ships. These vessels, the largest so far to be built for the TCGA, will feature light fixed armament, surveillance radar, and a flight deck and hangar to support operations by S-70C naval helicopters.
Also on the horizon are some 200 smaller patrol vessels, including a new design of high speed catamaran.
New policy, furthermore, mandates integrated operations by Taiwan’s naval and coast guard vessels. These new assets will therefore be optimised for interoperability.
Taipei’s counter-invasion plans include the deployment of a quick reaction force, including the assault ship Hsu Hai, with an embarked force of Marines, as well as flying in personnel of the Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Unit, a highly specialised SF outfit, mainly manned by aboriginal Taiwanese personnel.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.