Seeing the dragon on our doorstep (part 1)
21 Mar 2016|

A key challenge in the coming years for Australia will be the PLA’s growing ability to project military power beyond what Chinese military thinkers deem to be the first and second island chains (see
map below).

‘Near Seas’ vs. ‘Far Seas’

When considering the canvas upon which future geopolitical competition in Asia is to be played out, it seems doubtful that China will be content to seek control of the South China Sea alone. Beijing has every incentive to steadily increase its naval power projection capabilities to protect vital strategic interests—notably trade and energy—along the Maritime Silk Road that traverses the Indian Ocean.  The MSR, along with the Silk Road Economic Belt that runs overland through Eurasia, are the foundations for ‘The China Dream’ of national rejuvenation. Without access to energy resources, China’s economy will slow, the country will become more vulnerable to internal social and political disorder and the CCP’s grip on power will weaken.

Current projections suggest that by 2020, imported oil will make up 66% of China’s total oil demand, and by 2040, it will make up 72%. Up to 80% of China’s energy and trade will move along the MSR and through the Malacca Strait from Africa and the Persian Gulf. The nearby Lombok­–Makassar straits are also strategically significant as most super tankers too large for Malacca traverse this deep water route. It also allows PLA Navy submarines to access the Indian Ocean submerged, and the entrance to the Lombok Strait is also very close to Darwin.  The MSR starts and ends in the South China Sea, meaning that the the China Dream is unattainable if Beijing’s claim of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea remains unfulfilled.

Chinese control of the South China Sea through steady militarisation of disputed territories is therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. National Defense University Professor Liang Fang suggests ‘that a military presence along the Maritime Silk Road must serve to deter any potential enemy, and that, ultimately, sea lane security can only be assured by carrier battle groups on station’. Correspondingly, the most recent Chinese Defence White Paper—released in May 2015—makes clear that China is now beginning to move beyond a narrow focus on counter-intervention operations (or ‘anti-access and area denial’ in western circles) in the Near and Middle Seas, and is set to project power and presence into the Far Seas of the Indian Ocean as part of an ‘open seas protection’ role for the PLAN.

At this stage the PLAN has it’s first overseas base in Djibouti; have visited Sri Lanka; have negotiated port access to both Gwadar in Pakistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh; and have sustained counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. If one considers the ancient Chinese game of Wei Qi (or ‘Go’) as a parallel, China is already moving stones to prevent encirclement, while expanding presence.

China will likely operate directly within Australia’s northern maritime approaches as it projects power from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean through the Southeast Asian straits. Most important for Australia is that there are no surprises like the January 2014 ‘Christmas Cruise’ when a Chinese PLAN deployment of three warships transited Sunda Strait and then deployed off Christmas Island. Australia must ensure it has a broad area maritime surveillance capability, which a combination of air (P-8A and MQ-4C), as well as naval platforms, supported by space-enabled C4ISR networks can provide. Tracking PLAN deployments from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean through the straits is vital, and not just for PLAN surface vessels. Australia needs to enhance its undersea warfare (USW) capabilities, including through the development of Theatre Anti-Submarine Warfare (TASW) systems to network and share information, and which are cued by an Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) focusing on key maritime straits.

The 2016 Defence White Paper doesn’t mention such capabilities, and as such we are dependent on foreign provision of such intelligence. Yet an Australian TASW/IUSS capability—something like an undersea equivalent to JORN—makes a great deal of sense, and could complement allied USW surveillance in the region, as well as directly support the complete spectrum of ADF maritime surveillance activities.

Sun Tzu wrote that to ‘know the opponent and know yourself will lead to victory in one hundred battles’. Seeing Chinese naval activities, including submarine deployments, at a long distance contributes directly to achieving all three of the Strategic Defence Objectives as laid out in the Defence White Paper.

A second piece will consider China’s growing naval capabilities and examine implications for Australia’s ability to pursue its Strategic Defence Objectives.