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Maneuvers in the South China Sea Now May Lead to War Later

USS Wisconsin Battleship (BB-64) in Norfolk, Virginia

By Morgan Deane

In mid-August 2016 Chinese sent advanced ships and planes on training maneuvers which brought a new wave of tensions to the region, but also suggest the state run media is not as full of hot air as we might believe. The Chinese operations in the Sea of Japan suggest they want to use force to back their claims, and are increasingly able to coordinate the use of sophisticated platforms. In July, China lost a ruling in the world court regarding the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.  As a result, they have conducted exercises in the South China Sea and areas near Vietnam.   Those operations were conducted with Russians and practiced seizing islands. This is particularly dangerous because the beginning of the Ussuri River incident, the near war with Russia in 1969, started from seizing islands. Now the Chinese are operating with the Russians and practicing that maneuver.

As concerning as that is, the operation in the Sea of Japan and the disputed Senkaku Islands is even more dangerous. This maneuver included their frigates and destroyers locating a theoretical enemy which was then hit and destroyed with their long range bomber, H-6K. The location of the operation near Japan, the types of long range attack weapons used, and the recent controversy suggest this was a demonstration of power to warn Japan and displays China’s increasing capability in performing complex operations.

The new multi-role stealth frigate provides both air and submarine defense. The Chinese have been investing heavily in more advanced weapons systems and this frigate has only been deployed since 2009 and it has seen anti-piracy action in the Gulf of Aden. The 52c version comes with advanced radar systems and additional air defense missiles and its hangars support helicopter operations.  The H-6K is a strategic bomber designed for long range and standoff attacks. It also entered service in 2009. The bombers were carrying the DH20 land attack cruise missile. These are some of the most flexible and deadly missiles in the world. They fly fast and low which makes it tough for ships, such as those from Japan and America, to operate against them. The missiles form part of what is called anti access area denial (A2AD). These are weapons systems that do not necessarily overwhelming or permanently prevent access, but they act as a barrier to entry. These missiles make it particularly difficult for large capital ships to operate near China without significant loss, which would give China enough time to seize an island, or perform another preemptive action before significant forces from the US could respond.

The combined operations exercise underscores the growing sophistication of Chinese forces and their ability to operate in blue water environments. These weapons systems sound nice on paper and they represent the huge investment that China is making in upgrading its technology, but there is a difference between having a fancy toy and knowing how to use it.  The difference between using weapons systems during peacetime and coordinating their use in war time conditions requires extensive training. Flawless exercises suggest that China’s state run media is at least partially correct, and that China is better able to make that jump if or when it needs to. In addition, there is significant concern over the training of pilots. They are trying to field increasingly sophisticated aircraft but the training maneuvers of pilots are often far too static. The pilots and senior air leaders often defer to ground leaders and have a difficult time adapting to changing circumstances.

The Chinese not only showed they know how to use these increasingly sophisticated systems, but did so near contested waters. Japan agreed with the world court decision against China. While the Spratly Islands are far away from Japan, as reported by Strategy Page, Japanese officials lodged complaints earlier this month over the actions of Chinese fisherman and coast guard boats in the nearby, and disputed, Senkaku territories. They have since started naval patrols around the island, which strongly suggests this was the target for which the Chinese were practicing. The Japanese are developing surface to ship missiles. Similar to China’s anti air and area denial strategy (A2 AD) against American naval forces, these missiles are believed to be potent enough that can help dissuade Chinese operations in the Sea of Japan around the islands, and are seen as a provocative counter to China.

All of this underscores the tension between China and Japan. China regularly flexes its muscles in the area, both powers lodge complaints with international bodies, and both are developing and using new weapon systems.  The Chinese operations in this sea suggest they are better able to develop and use their advanced missiles, weapons, and ships, and to coordinate these increasingly sophisticated operations.   In response, the United States must have a larger presence in the region and learn how to counter the Chinese A2AD strategy.  If they do not, it is increasingly likely these maneuvers could lead to significant escalation, and Japan alone will not deter the Chinese from their current behavior. The U.S. has substantial interests in the region and a rising conflict may bring additional players, such as Russia – who routinely sides with China, to the table.  Therefore, it’s better to quell this situation now with a show of force, vice wait until events have catapulted on to the next level of engagement.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and Reserve U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

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