|The Naval Balance of Power: The South China Sea |
|Written by Frederik Van Lokeren|
|Thursday, 12 May 2011 01:10|
The South China Sea is an important area in the maritime world of today. Many important trade routes run through this sea. The most important trade routes are the ones that supply the economies of China, Japan and Taiwan of essential raw materials. Other trade routes in the area support the distribution and export of finished products to and from markets in the European Union, the Middle East and India. Apart from these trade routes the South China Sea also possesses important reserves of crude oil and gas that are especially important to China in relation to the sustainment of its economy in the future.
An important point of conflict in the South China Sea is China’s urge to claim the totality of the South China Sea as territorial waters or, at the very least as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which national (Chinese) maritime power and law dominate instead of international law. This causes a dispute with the United States because the US Navy requires freedom of navigation to connect the 7th fleet with the 5th fleet as well as freedom of operations in case the US Navy is required to respond to emergencies in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is located at the northern entrance of the South China Sea. The Taiwanese navy possesses an enormous green water navy capacity of four Kidd class destroyers, eight Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates, eight Knox class frigates, six La Fayette class frigates, two Zwaardvis class submarines and two older Tench class submarines. Apart from these Taiwan also deploys a large fleet of fast attack missile crafts and patrol boats. The Taiwanese navy also has a very limited amphibian capability based on a single Anchorage dock landing ship and two Newport class tank landing ships.
When looking at these crude numbers it can be concluded that Taiwan is a potentially strong player in the South China Sea. The Taiwanese navy is, however, dedicated mostly to the defense of the main island of Taiwan and is concentrated in the Taiwan Strait as a counterweight to a potential Chinese invasion. It is plausible that in case of a threat Taiwan would deploy its fleet its fleet in the South China Sea to protect the supply lines that run through the sea.
Taiwan also claims several of the Spraty islands. Taiwan has recently increased the defense of these islands by stationing extra coastguard troops on the. These troops stationed in the Spratly islands are meant to be trained to carry out sea combat and to prevent amphibious attacks, including landings by other countries forces. This is the first time since the year 2000 that Taiwan has expressed a want to deploy combat-ready troops in the islands. This demonstrates how Taiwant takes the defense of its territories against a Chinese invasion seriously. It remains doubtable, however, whether Taiwan would be willing to commit the bulk of its fleet in the event of a Chinese invasion of the Spratly islands.
The navy of the Philippines is mainly built from aged American warships from the Second World War era. The Philippines have one frigate, the BRP Rajah Humabon, a former Second World War escort destroyer that was taken into service by the Philippines in the seventies. Apart from this the Philippines also have some seriously aged corvettes. The Jacinto class of corvettes, the former British Peacock class, was handed down to the Philippines in 1997. The Rizal class of minesweepers dates back to the former Second World War United States Auk class. The Second World War United States Admirable class of minesweepers is now the Philippine Miguel Malvar class. The Philippine navy also uses a large number of smaller patrol ships that are mainly deployed in coastal waters to combat smuggling and piracy. On top of these ships a small number of amphibious assault ships that date back to the Second World War are also found in the Philippine navy. These ships, however, are useless to execute an amphibious assault outside of the Philippines due to the distinct lack of naval aviation assets which suggests these ships to be useful only for internal security operations instead of power projection. An emergency in the Spratly islands, which are also claimed by the Philippines, could however call for an exception in the use of this amphibious capability.
Towards the future the Philippine navy is planning to purchase a Hamilton class cutter from the United States Coast Guard. At this time only the sale of the USCGC Hamilton is being contemplated, most likely to replace the aging frigate BRP Rajah Humabon, but there is a chance that several ships of the same class will be purchased. Overall, the Philippine navy is a small naval force built from aging components. Due to the many islands that make up the Philippines their primary mission is patrolling against smuggling, piracy and trafficking of drugs. There is a limited power projection capability that stems from the few amphibious ships that could be used in the Spratly islands but are more likely to be used mainly within Philippine territory.
The Malaysian navy is made up of two Lekiu class frigates that were built in the United Kingdom. Both ships entered service at the end of the nineties. The Kasturi class of ships, of which the Malaysian navy owns two, was built in Germany in the eighties. Malaysia also deploys two classes of corvettes; the Laksamana class that was built in the eighties and six ships of the Kedah class which are a variant of the German MEKO 100 corvette. The latter were taken into service after the year 2000. The Malaysian navy also fields four Combattante II class missile boats that were purchased in the seventies and eighties. On top of this Malaysia also has a submarine capability based on two Scorpene class diesel-electric submarines.
Little is known about the future plans of the Malaysian navy. There was discussion of the construction of two new Lekiu frigates, but this deal was blown off due to limited funds. Malaysia operates on both sides of the South China Sea and shares a coastline with the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. As a consequence, the Malaysian navy is spread thin across the area and it could prove difficult to mass the Malaysian naval assets in a single area without leaving other areas unprotected.
The Bruneian navy is a small navy that is completely aimed at coastal defense and protection of the offshore oil industry. The navy is mainly made up of patrol boats. Brunei does own four LCM’s (Landing Craft Mechanized) which grants it a modest amphibious capability. Just like the other countries around the South China Sea, Brunei is currently caught up in the modernization of its fleet. This included, among other things, the construction of three variants of the modern F2000 class of corvettes. Brunei, however, refused to accept the ships because according to them they did not meet the demanded requirements. The vessels were sold on to Algeria in 2008.
The Indonesian navy is able to fall back on a large amount of ships. There are six frigates of the Ahmad Yani class in the navy, these frigates are the Dutch Van Speijk class of frigates that were built in the sixties and sold to Indonesia in the eighties. The Indonesian navy also ordered a SIGMA 10514 class frigate with the Damen shipyard in the Netherlands. Right now only this one frigate is being built for Indonesia, it is expected to enter service in 2014. Indonesia also possesses many corvettes. Three of these corvettes, the Fatahillah class, were built halfway the seventies in the Netherlands. Indonesia also operates the four Diponegoro class corvettes that are known in the west as SIGMA corvettes, also built by Damen in the Netherlands. The bulk of the corvettes are sixteen Kapitan Patimura class corvettes, better known as the Parchim class, that were built in the eighties by East Germany. In 1993 these ships were sold to Indonesia.
Indonesia also has a submarine capability made up of two Charka class submarines. These are two diesel-electric submarines of the German Type 209 class. Indonesia was also planning to buy two Russian Kilo class submarines but postponed the purchase to a later date. Of course Indonesia also operates a large amount of patrol boats, minesweepers and attack boats. It also adopted a couple of LST’s (Landing Ship tank) from the United States which grant it a limited amphibious capability.
Just like the Philippines, Indonesia includes hundreds of islands. The main focus of its naval force is also on patrolling against smuggling operations. Indonesia is also responsible for security in the Strait of Malacca, where up to several years ago piracy was a serious problem. Apart from this, Indonesia also has a long coastline along the Indian Ocean. All of this makes Indonesia unable to play a big part in the South China Sea because its attention is already divided between internal duties and the security of the Strait of Malacca.
Just like Indonesia, Singapore is located slightly off the South China Sea and carries responsibility for the security in the Strait of Malacca. Singapore operates two different kinds of submarine classes. The Chalanger class was purchased from Swede during the nineties, where these vessels were known as the Sjöormen class. These submarines are, however, more than 40 years old and were purchased to gain some limited experience in the deployment of submarines. Five years ago Singapore bought two submarines of the Swedish Västergötland class that were equipped with AIP (Air Independent Propulsion). The Singapore navy also operates six frigates of the Formidable class, a variant of the French La Fayette class that was taken into service after the year 2000. Singapore also has six Victory class corvettes that were constructed in Germany by the end of the eighties and taken into service in the early nineties. By the end of the nineties Singapore also started operating twelve patrol boats. As part of its amphibious capability Singapore operates four Endurance class LPD’s (Landing Platform Dock). These ships already saw action in the Persian Gulf where they patrolled and executed logistics support operations. They also took part in the humanitarian aid effort after the 2004 Tsunami.
Thailand is currently the only regional country able to deploy an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. The HTMS Charki Naruebet is a smaller version of the Spanish carrier Principe de Asturias and entered service in 1997. Thailand also operates ten frigates; two United States Knox class frigates, two Chinese Jianghu class type IV frigates, four Jianghu class frigates, one United States Second World War Cannon class destroyer and one British Yarrow class frigate. Thailand also operates seven corvettes from three different classes constructed during the seventies and eighties. The Thai navy also has a number of patrol boats and amphibious assault vessels.
Thailand is planning the future purchase of an LPS ship that is being constructed in Singapore. This ship will be similar to Singapore’s Endurance class. This will grant Thailand a limited logistical and amphibious capability. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, Thailand did not have the financial means to keep its aircraft carrier operational or to install the defensive weapons systems. As a consequence this ship is only operational for training during one day a month. Because of this Thailand lacks the necessary experience to deploy aircraft carriers and the ship does not present a threat in the region.
The Cambodian navy is made up of about fifteen patrol boats and about 170 motorized canoes. This navy is aimed only at the protection of Cambodia’s own coastline and has no means at all to operate beyond Cambodia’s littoral waters. In 2005 China offered six patrol boats to Cambodia to help it fight piracy, transnational crime and smuggling. Because of this, in 2007 Comabodia was able to triple its naval personnel to 3000 and was able to raise a marine force of 2000 men.
The Vietnamese navy operates two Russian frigates of the Gepard class, of which Vietnam desires to build two more under a license, and five frigates of the Petya class built in the sixties by the former Soviet Union. Vietnam also ordered six improved Kilo class submarines from Russia. These submarines are to be delivered to Vietnam between 2012 and 2016. Vietnam also operates several patrol boats for coastal defense that were all built by the Soviet Union and Russia.
Most of the Spratly islands are in Vietnamese territory and this is directly disputed and threatened by China. The fact that Vietnam is near the Chinese island of Hainan, the PLAN’s most important naval base near the South China Sea, forces Vietnam to maintain the most powerful and most modernized navy possible. Modern frigates and submarines are to serve as a counterweight to the growing strength of the PLAN.
The number of ships operated by China, accompanied by their separate description, would make this analysis too large in size but we can safely say that China possesses a vast arsenal of modern frigates, destroyers and submarines that continue to grow in numbers. China, due to its geopolitical situation, is forced to spread its fleet over three areas. In the north China is forced to counter the United States 7th fleet and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, in the central region China needs to counter the navy of Taiwan. In the south, however, the PLAN is taking an aggressive stance in order to claim the South China Sea as territorial waters as seen on the map below. This would allow China to exploit the enormous oil and gas reserves that are located in the Spratly islands and that could serve to supply the Chinese economy with energy.
The South China Sea is an important economic area. First of all it is an area in which many important trade routes connecting China, Taiwan and Japan with the rest of the world are located, apart from that it is also an area that contains important energy reserves located around the Spratly islands.
Large parts of the sea are claimed by China as a territorial sea. If China succeeds in forcing this on the countries surrounding the South China Sea, mainly Chinese law will be applied in the area. This will affect the sea mostly through the freedom of navigation and the control over oil and gas fields in the Spratly islands. This, of course, fits perfectly into China’s plan. By controlling the South China Sea and obtaining freedom of navigation and thus being able to control access of foreign warships in the sea, China could use the sea as a buffer for its coastal area where the most important centers of the Chinese economy are located. China attempts to claim this area in different ways, but mostly through showing its military power. This spurs other countries to expand and modernize their navies as far as they are capable.
When taking a look at the other countries in the area it is clear to see that the Philippines and Indonesia are mostly concerned with countering smuggling operations and piracy in between the hundreds of islands that comprise both nations. Malaysia’s naval forces are spread too thin between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. With its small navy Malaysia only counts as a small factor of power plays in this area.
Taiwan operates a more modern navy, but commits it completely to the protection of its mainland from a potential Chinese invasion. The question remains whether Taiwanese ships will appear in the South China Sea if China were to cut off Taiwan’s trade routes running through that area. If, however, Taiwan would deploy ships to the South China Sea in such a scenario, this would substantially weaken Taiwan’s deterrent against a Chinese amphibious assault and for that reason Taiwan is unlikely to play a determining role in the South China Sea.
Cambodia lacks all financial means to construct a navy and is only to maintain its small coastal navy through Chinese donations. The reason for China’s support to the Cambodian navy is officially based on the fight against smuggle operations and piracy, but is more likely to be based on the reasoning that a strengthened Cambodian navy would be able to tie up Vietnamese naval units in the event of a conflict, which in return would virtually weaken Vietnam’s naval stance against China. As is the case with Cambodia, Thailand also lacks the funds to become an important factor in the South China Sea. Although Thailand has the necessary frigates to form a carrier action group based on the carrier HTMS Charki Naruebet, Thailand lacks the financial means to keep the aircraft carrier itself operational at a decent level. On paper Thailand possesses the ability to be a powerful maritime player in the South China Sea, but this strength is limited to paper representations of power.
The two most important players in the South China Sea apart from China are Vietnam and Singapore. Singapore operates modern frigates and corvettes and already has the necessary experience to operate diesel-electric submarines. Its attention, however, is mainly focused on the Strait of Malacca and combating piracy that was rampant in the area up to recent years. Vietnam operates a couple of modern ships that would be able to counter the PLAN. At this point in time the Vietnamese navy is occupied with receiving the improved Kilo class submarine that would present a realistic threat to the PLAN. The Vietnamese navy is too small to be considered a serious challenge to the PLAN but these modern submarines would force China to take into account their presence in the region.
The wagers of the power struggle in the South China Sea are the Spratly islands that are claimed by different countries as shown in the map above. The important energy reserves in the area are wanted by all surrounding countries. Vietnam currently occupies the largest part of the islands but China, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also claim the Spratly islands or parts of them. A conflict in this area could escalate quickly, mostly due to the previous aggressiveness of China in the eighties involving the construction of military bases and a short skirmish between China and Vietnam near the Jonson reef, but also due to the presence of amphibious capabilities in the countries around the islands which could be used to quickly deploy troops to the islands in case of a crisis.
The South China Sea is also an important transit zone to the United States Navy. It forms the connection between the US 7th Fleet in Japan and the US 5th fleet in the Indian Ocean. On top of this the US Navy uses the South China Sea to collect intelligence on PLAN capabilities and activities. This is an important operation for the United States, especially the collection of sonar profiles of Chinese ships, most importantly Chinese submarines. An important example of this type of activity was the incident between United States surveillance ships, the USS Victorious and the USS Impeccable, and Chinese trawlers operated by the Chinese navy in 2009. If China were to claim the South Chinese Sea as territorial waters this could seriously hamper the freedom of navigation of warships and the freedom of operation, which according to the US Navy is considered synonym with freedom of navigation, and effectively lock the United States Navy out of the South China Sea while disrupting the connection between the 5th and 7th Fleet in the process.