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China's creeping annexation in the South China Sea - the strategic background

In July 2016, China rejected an arbitration award from the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague that declared China's "historical" claim to reefs and rocks in the South China Sea to be incompatible with international law. Extensive Chinese land reclamation projects that began in 2013 in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, and the subsequent militarization of these artificial islands, had already sparked international criticism and alerted the neighboring states, who were also claiming. Since then, many analyzes have tried to explain China's uncompromising behavior by referring to the historical, symbolic or economic importance of the South China Sea for the overall Chinese strategy. In this article, however, some often overlooked military strategic factors are highlighted. These indicate that China is taking a coherent approach to create a comprehensive, real-time situation picture at any time in a sea area, which is a key factor in China's military modernization and nuclear deterrent strategy due to several critical military facilities on the island of Hainan.

In July 2016, China startled observers when it refused to accept a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague that declared the Chinese ‘historic’ claim on land features in the South China Sea to be not in accord with international law. Vast Chinese land reclamation projects that began in 2013 in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and the subsequent militarization of these features, had drawn international criticism and raised alarm among other claimants. To explain China’s assertive behavior, many recent analyzes have focused on the historic, symbolic or economic meaning of the South China Sea to China’s overall strategy. This paper aims to explore some overlooked military-strategic factors, and presents evidence for a coherent Chinese approach to establish comprehensive maritime domain awareness in a sea area that, due to several critical installations on Hainan Island, holds the key for China's military modernization and nuclear deterrence strategy.

1 Introduction

Since 2012, the People's Republic of China has been making massive efforts to enlarge uninhabited rocks, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea through land reclamation, to build civil and military infrastructure there and thereby bring a larger area of ​​the sea under its control. Despite many protests from neighboring states and the rejection of this procedure by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Beijing continues its efforts with undiminished energy and does not shy away from military threats.[1] In fact, China is annexing a larger sea area using hybrid warfare. There are selective reports about it in the media, but the extent and scope of the Chinese Sea-grabbing are usually little known.

The question arises as to why China continues to implement these measures with such great consistency and with considerable resources despite the associated political burdens. There are four explanations for this in the scientific debate: on the one hand, the nationalist fever that is increasingly spreading in China is blamed; another statement targets allegedly large oil and gas deposits in the sea area that China wants to exploit on its own; a third interpretation sees China's interest in securing important sea lines as the main motive. In a fourth interpretation, it is assumed that China is attempting to shift the military balance of power in this sea area to its own advantage and to make interventions by the USA in favor of allies more difficult or even to prevent them entirely. Only recently has a further explanation been discussed, according to which China intends to turn the sea area south and east of the Chinese island of Hainan into a sanctuary for strategic submarines, which are said to be an essential part of China's nuclear deterrent. This essay builds on the latter considerations and adds an even more far-reaching, as yet unexplored perspective.[2]

In a first step, the extent of the Chinese actions in the South China Sea is described. In the following part, the above-mentioned first three hypotheses are tested for their plausibility and their realism and are all found to be insufficiently meaningful. This is followed by another part offering a statement that puts Chinese policy in the South China Sea in a broader strategic and ultimately geopolitical context. Everything indicates that China is very systematically trying to put a large strategic defense ring (bastion) around the island of Hainan. On the one hand, this defensive ring is intended to protect the strategically important spaceport Wenchang, the expansion of which was completed in 2014 and which has been in operational use since 2016. On the other hand, a sanctuary for submarines is to be created in the South China Sea, with which China wants to create a nuclear strategic second strike capability. Both the construction of the Wenchang Cosmodrome and the expansion of the strategic submarine fleet are part of the Chinese efforts to achieve an equal, if not first-rate status as a world power, which is primarily being worked off on the USA. It is therefore unlikely that China's policy in the South China Sea will change.

2 Extent and extent of the Chinese "land reclamation"

Since 2009, and especially since Xi Jinping took office at the end of 2012, Chinese land reclamation activities in the South China Sea (hereinafter: SCM) have accelerated significantly. The unprecedented militarization of some artificially created islands within a very short period of time and increased activities of the paramilitary and hybrid naval forces of China (the Coast Guard and the "People's Maritime Militia") in the disputed sea areas caused concern among the neighboring countries. In addition, China categorically refused in July 2016 to recognize a negative decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding its claims in the SCM.[3] These behaviors represent Beijing's declared intention to "ascend peacefully"[4] and to uphold international law. Instead, the PRC decided to enforce its maritime claims in the SCM through “a combination of military, paramilitary, legal and diplomatic means”.[5] This external harshness coincided with a turn towards a much more autocratic and less pluralistic style of government in the PRC itself, as John W. Lewis and Litai Xue point out in an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2016:

“Xi [...] used his first two years in office to gain absolute control over the internal levers of power, to mobilize support from the population and to paralyze potential opponents through brisk anti-corruption and Maoist-tinged mass campaigns. The tremendous preparations for the expansion of the seven Spratly reefs, which began in December 2013, took place in parallel with the creation of a National Security Commission, the drafting of a National Security Act, the creation of budgetary powers, the establishment of powerful central leadership groups to control sensitive decision-making bodies and a more progressive one Military strategy ".[6]

In addition, after a two-month confrontation, China wrested control of the Scarborough Shoal atoll off the Philippines in mid-2012 and significantly increased the number of sea patrols through the South China Sea with reconnaissance ships. Stricter police measures have also been taken against foreign fishing vessels and violent preventive measures have been taken against the exploitation of energy resources by Vietnam and the Philippines within their respective 200-mile zones, even in parts of their own coastal waters claimed by China. In addition, a new administrative unit "Sansha City" was founded on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago in order to "govern" the area claimed by the Chinese side in the SCM from there. In 2014, the Chinese oil platform HYSY 981 Relocated to waters off the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. Since 2013 massive land reclamation work has been carried out on already occupied reefs and rocks in the SCM and finally numerous civil and military facilities have been installed on the artificially raised islands.[7]

Above all, the gigantic extent of the Chinese land reclamation projects in the SCM, which began on seven reefs in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in September 2013, have sparked criticism in Asian and Western countries and alarmed other claimants in Southeast Asia, as Ben Dolven et al. note:

“The Chinese government did not really comment on the work until March 2015 and did not give any explanation of its intentions for the use of the artificial islands until April 2015. Since then, China has admitted military use plans, but above all emphasized its intention to use the islands for 'international public services'. On June 16, 2015, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang, issued a statement that the work would end soon ”.[8]

The land reclamation work alone was enormous: According to the Chinese news commentator Shi Yang von Guancha.com moved the Tianjing (a self-propelled Chinese suction dredger) between five reefs of the Spratly archipelago for 193 days between September 2013 and June 2014 and carried “more than ten million cubic meters of sand and seawater onto the reefs, or the equivalent of three times the amount of concrete that the construction of the Hoover Dam was needed. "[9] Careful analysis of satellite images by the AMTI and other observers suggests that in 2014 and 2015 alone, China artificially created around 12.9 square kilometers of newly reclaimed land on its seven large Spratly reefs.[10]

The extent of Dual-use and purely military infrastructures that were built on these objects was also enormous. The three largest Spratly atolls, Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, have each been equipped with airports and runways long enough to handle even the largest military aircraft. This was demonstrated in the spring of 2015 by the take-offs and landings of strategic bombers. The same artificial islands also received large port facilities with mooring facilities for very large ships. In addition, hangar capacities were built up that are sufficient to accommodate an entire carrier squadron of an aircraft carrier Liaoning-Class, consisting of 24 combat aircraft and four to five large aircraft, to accommodate in it. Underground storage facilities for fuel and water were also created, as well as permanently installed artillery and various communication and radar systems.[11] According to a 2015 Chinese source cited by Lewis and Xue, which is no longer accessible, total Chinese investments in the seven occupied Spratly Islands to date have exceeded $ 30 billion. As they point out, given the enormous spending and willingness to risk negative counter-reactions in the region after decades of propaganda for a “peaceful rise of China” and a “harmonious world”, these measures are likely to be “much broader security interests” than is commonly assumed. In contrast to this assessment, a number of recent analyzes of Chinese behavior in SCM tend to focus more on historical, legal, symbolic or economic aspects of the problem in order to explain its relevance from the perspective of the Chinese overall development strategy.[12]

Fig. 1:

The fortified atoll of Subi Reef in 2018, Photo credit: CSIS

Some peculiar infrastructure projects currently being developed by China for the SCM have attracted significantly less attention than the artificial islands, but raise questions of their own. In 2016, for example, it was officially confirmed that China plans to build up to 20 floating nuclear power plants and deploy them in the southern Chinese sea area.[13] These plans were publicly announced by Wang Yiren, Vice Director of the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND). In an interview with the state media, Wang pointed out somewhat cryptically that China “will prioritize the development of a floating nuclear power plant to support its offshore oil and gas production activities and its presence in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos ".[14] If such floating nuclear power plants are actually developed according to plan and deployed in the sea area, they could not only provide a practically inexhaustible, mobile energy source for various military infrastructures that rely on energy-hungry sensor systems; they would also greatly improve the habitability of small military outposts by providing an abundant source of energy that could be used for seawater desalination and communications purposes, among other things. Deep-sea mining is another energy-intensive field that would benefit immensely from a mobile energy source. In addition, there is an additional strategic advantage through the use of floating nuclear power plants in the contested areas: The presence of a reactor in a sea area could serve as a deterrent against air attacks if enemy forces want to avoid a nuclear accident as collateral damage.

These floating power plants are only one of several examples of interesting new technical infrastructures that are being developed by the PR China in the SCM - others include an ASW sensor network as a “Chinese submarine wall”, which consists of hundreds of deep-sea sonoboys to help locate the situation below monitor the water surface.[15] There are also complex research facilities that can integrate the data from deep-sea buoys transmitted via satellite into real-time situational images, including a large “oceanographic research station” on Woody Island.[16] There are also telemetry stations on Duncan Island in the Paracel Archipelago and possibly on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Archipelago.[17]

The trend towards stronger demonstrations of Chinese power in the South and East China Seas continues unabated. In 2017, China began regular "island patrols" with fighter planes around Taiwan and carried out test drives of its newest naval ships in the immediate vicinity. By mid-2018, the new Chinese aircraft carrier had Liaoning Completed at least 38 closely monitored training missions near Taiwan.[18] In April 2018, China finally dispatched an armada of 48 naval vessels, including the aircraft carrier, in an unprecedented show of force Liaoning, and 76 aircraft for military exercises in the SCM and produced a spectacular (and from the point of view of neighboring states intimidating) propaganda video of the event to showcase the progress of the Chinese Navy in the fields of naval technology, naval aviation and joint operations.[19]

3 explanatory approaches

China's surprising harshness regarding its claim in the SCM has led to a multitude of attempts at explanations, largely focusing on four main factors: (a) domestic political pressure on the government from nationalist tendencies of the Chinese people; (b) Beijing's desire to control the marine resources in the SCM; (c) the strategic need to protect key maritime routes that cross the SCM (the “Malacca Dilemma”); and (d) the military use of the bases on the artificial islands in a hypothetical great power conflict with the United States. The last point has so far been examined comparatively less often than the other three. We will give a brief overview of the existing explanatory models before introducing our own approach, which deals with the strategic importance of critical installations on the island of Hainan, located on the northern edge of the SCM, as a prerequisite for China's rise to a global military power.

3.1 The dynamics of Chinese nationalism

Nationalist sentiment regarding China's territorial claims has been fueled, shaped and strengthened by the state over the decades.This was mainly done through a practically unchallenged historical narrative that is presented to the population in a uniform manner in the history textbooks of schools, the media and in campaigns for “patriotic education”. The effects of these decades of indoctrination limit the political choices of the current CCP leadership to some extent. According to opinion polls carried out after the 2016 Hague arbitration by the Global Poll Center, a subsidiary of the CCP mouthpiece Global Times, 60 percent of the Chinese surveyed believed that the US was "pulling the strings behind the Permanent Court of Arbitration" and that the entire process was "a violation of China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests." According to Masayuki Masuda, "a whopping 88.1 percent said they supported the Chinese government's position not to participate [in the arbitration], not to accept [it], and not to recognize the award".[20] Fear of public outrage, so the explanatory approach, therefore limits the political options of the CCP leadership. We point out, however, that this line of reasoning is a typical chicken-and-egg problem - after all, it was the government itself that created the underlying historical narrative. In addition, as Bill Hayton recently pointed out, the claim to the South China Sea has been more or less conjured up from nowhere by various Chinese governments since the Republican era, and this on the basis of faulty maps, which in some cases even show completely imaginary islands . According to Hayton, early Chinese maps consistently do not use indigenous Chinese, but only foreign names transcribed aloud into Chinese for the various reefs, rocks and shoals in the SCM, which indicates a lack of actual first-hand geographical knowledge of these areas.[21]

Despite the weak factual basis, the nationalist narrative was nevertheless used extensively inside and outside of China for propaganda purposes, so that it is firmly anchored in public discourse today. The CCP has generally had a strong track record of ruthlessly rewriting historical records whenever it was in the interests of leadership, particularly in connection with incidents that harm the Party's public image (such as the horrors of the "Great Leap Forward." “, The Cultural Revolution or the events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989). Given its proven ability to influence the public's perception of history and the extensive control the CCP has over Chinese media, textbooks, and academic research on historical subjects, it is hard to see why it should be powerless, of all people, over public opinion on the subject Change the SCM question if this is in your interest.[22] As some observers have rightly pointed out, “public opinion cannot exert a direct influence on government decisions, which gives the government some latitude to pursue policies which they believe are in the national interest but not necessarily popular should ".[23] We therefore agree with the following assessment by Kheng Swe Lim:

“[O] While nationalism plays an important role in the conflict over the South China Sea, its influence may not be so overwhelming that it precludes any attempt to improve Chinese relations with other claiming countries [...]. It would therefore be wrong to assume with certainty that China's foreign policy on the South China Sea is guided by the 'passions of the people' ”.[24]

This is also evident from the fact that public reactions of the Chinese population to events in the SCM have so far been comparatively restrained and all “pale in comparison to the conflicts with Japan (or Taiwan), which resulted in public protests several times”.[25]

3.2 The exploitation of marine resources in the South China Sea

Another explanation for China's harshness that is often mentioned relates to what are believed to be huge hydrocarbon reserves in the SCM, as well as other marine resources such as fish and seafood. While there is no doubt that access to and control of marine resources is indeed a motive for all claimants, including China, this approach poses some problems: Although throughout SCM, according to the US Energy Information Agency, “possibly 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas ", it should be remembered that" these resources are primarily in the undisputed Areas along the coastline (i.e. outside of China's 'nine-point line') ”and are therefore unaffected by sovereignty disputes.[26] Different estimates of the hydrocarbon reserves in the SCM are also very different.[27] The dispute over the Paracel Islands, for example, can hardly be explained in terms of the resource competition between China and Vietnam, if the following information contained in a fact sheet of the EIA from 2013 is correct:

“The Paracel Islands area has no significant known conventional oil and gas fields and therefore has no proven or likely existing reserves. Geological surveys suggest that the area has no significant potential for conventional hydrocarbons ”.[28]

For the likewise highly controversial Spratly area, the same EIA study states:

“The EIA estimates that the Spratly Islands region has virtually no proven or probable oil reserves. Industry sources suggest that less than 100 billion cubic feet of currently economically viable natural gas reserves exist in the surrounding fields ”.[29]

Those proven hydrocarbon deposits that are actually within the disputed areas are also difficult to develop due to "extensive geological, technological and political challenges". In summary, the EIA study assumes that the SCM

“As a natural gas source [is] more suitable than an oil source, but producers would have to build expensive underwater pipelines to transport the gas to processing facilities. Underwater valleys and strong currents pose enormous geological problems for an effective deep-sea gas infrastructure. The region is also prone to typhoons and tropical storms and thus excludes cheaper, massive drilling and production platforms. "[30]

Extraction of hydrocarbon resources from the ocean floor by deep-sea drilling is an expensive and challenging endeavor that requires sophisticated technologies. Unsurprisingly, Turcsányi points out that “there is still no oil or gas extracted from the disputed parts of the sea in commercial quantities”. In addition, according to him, it is "questionable whether China actually believes that a sufficiently large amount of energy resources can be extracted from the disputed parts of the sea".[31]

Fish and seafood are another type of natural resource that may explain China's unwillingness to compromise on sovereignty in the SCM with its neighbors. It is estimated that the fish stocks in the SCM account for up to ten percent of the world's fishing grounds.[32] In 2015, as much as 12 percent of the world's catch was fished in the SCM, and it is believed that more than 50 percent of the world's fishing fleet operate in this sea area alone. However, it is even more difficult to understand why compromising with neighboring countries would not even lead to better results for China than a confrontational approach, especially when looking at fish supply in the long term. The fish stocks in the SCM have already been severely depleted in recent years. Since the 1950s, the fish stocks in the SCM have shrunk by 70 to 95 percent and the catches have decreased by 66 to 75 percent over the last 20 years. This decline is partly related to the widespread destruction of coral reefs in the SCM. So far, the loss per decade has been around 16 percent, but the massive artificial landfill has accelerated this process considerably. In the last five years alone, around 160 square kilometers of coral reefs have been destroyed by such measures.[33]

The only way to fish sustainably in this area depends on strengthening cooperation with all other claiming countries.[34] In addition, the smaller economies of other claiming states, such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, are even more dependent on the fishery resources within the SCM than they are themselves, given the PRC's large and globally operating fishing fleet.

The above points are by no means intended to imply that the marine resources in the SCM are insignificant or that they play no role in the CCP's decision-making regarding the SCM. The conflict over them, however, is not necessarily the determining factor among the various motivations influencing China's intransigent behavior.

3.3 Concern for the safety of sea routes

China's vulnerability to blockages of straits, especially the Strait of Malacca, is a frequently cited geopolitical factor intended to explain behavior in the SCM. In 2016, more than 30 percent of global crude oil exports were transported by sea through the SCM. 90 percent of them passed through the Strait of Malacca, as it is the shortest sea connection between the oil producers in Africa and the Gulf region and the Asian markets. China accounted for 42 percent of the total crude oil shipped through the SCM in 2016, which corresponds to around 90 percent of total Chinese crude oil imports that year. In addition, China has meanwhile ousted the USA from the top spot among the world's crude oil importers.[35] This dependence of China, known as the “Malacca Dilemma”, is often seen as the decisive influence behind the expansion of China's navy into a sea-going naval force and is also heavily discussed in the writings of Chinese naval experts.[36] Detailed US analyzes regarding the feasibility of a hypothetical sea blockade against China undoubtedly reinforce and confirm such Chinese threat perceptions.[37] Other observers, on the other hand, see the need to protect Chinese sea routes, but fundamentally question the existence of a “Malacca dilemma” as such, even if China's economy remains export-oriented in the foreseeable future and is heavily dependent on unhindered imports of raw materials and goods, most of which are by sea respectively.[38]

However, it is not entirely clear to what extent China's “Malacca dilemma” could be overcome by exercising control over the islands in the SCM. Chinese maritime traffic is dependent on several other straits that are much further away from the Chinese coast and are not influenced by control of the SCM, such as the Strait of Hormuz. And even if an intentional blockade of the Strait of Malacca with the aim of containing China were politically and technically feasible, this would disrupt a large part of world trade with the US allies South Korea and Japan as well as other countries: Japan and Korea alone accounted for 2016 38 percent of the crude oil imports transported by the SCM.[39] Such a drastic move would in all likelihood be considered only as part of a broader military campaign by the US and potentially spark a serious backlash, the effects of which could call into question the usefulness of such a move. Gabriel Collins warns in his most recent analysis of the problem:

“An oil blockade in and of itself is not a strategy; rather, it is a measure that should be properly embedded in a larger economic, diplomatic and military campaign. It would also be a measure comparable to a nuclear strike on the world economy in terms of trade war terminology. An open military conflict between the US and China would be a catastrophic global event on many levels. Furthermore, the physical paralysis of one of the largest transport routes in the global oil trade - and with it large parts of the Chinese economy - would very likely open Pandora's box, with unforeseen secondary and tertiary consequences, the effects of which could be even worse than even the most pessimistic analyzes to date suggest".[40]

Despite the above points, the mere fact that open discussions are taking place in Western countries about the feasibility of sea blockades against China understandably leads to strong Chinese concerns about this potential vulnerability.

3.4 Military importance of the artificial islands for the preparation for regional conflicts with the USA

The rapid militarization of the islands occupied and raised by China since mid-2013 led some analysts to assess that the radars, aircraft, naval ships and missiles stationed there were a decisive factor in a hypothetical military conflict with the USA (for example over Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands). In a recent RAND study on the military balance of power between China and the USA, Eric Heginbotham et al. firmly:

"[The] building of a more extensive base infrastructure in southern China, on Hainan and the Paracel Islands along with additional long-haul aircraft, tankers and medium-range ballistic missiles could shift the balance sometime after 2017."[41]

Other researchers have questioned this notion, claiming that the Chinese bases in the SCM are so vulnerable to attack that they would not be of much military use in the event of a military conflict with an equal competitor - mainly due to the difficulty of establishing a meaningful air defense for these relatively small ones To enable objects that do not easily offer the necessary space for the full use of air defense systems.[42] Nonetheless, even such skeptical reports admit that the new Chinese bases offer various strategic advantages in sub-military conflict scenarios that could ultimately alter the balance of power in the sea area. At the very least, they will "help expand the range of Chinese air defense and maritime space awareness," and this will "complicate US reconnaissance activities even though [the artificial islands] would be highly vulnerable in the worst-case scenario of a military conflict." .[43]

In summary, it can be said that from our perspective domestic political pressure and economic incentives alone do not convincingly explain why the PR China shows a strongly confrontational behavior instead of intensifying its cooperation with neighboring SCM claimants. Because their political weight and their economic clout in the region would probably help to secure them far-reaching concessions from its smaller neighbors, as recently became clear through the conciliatory behavior of the Duterte government after the Hague arbitration in favor of the Philippines in July 2016. In a speech in Aurora on May 15, 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte even went so far as to proclaim the need to “remain humble and humble” in order to appease the ego of Chinese President Xi Jinping and receive his “grace”.[44] In view of such astonishing readiness of a rival, who is also a traditional US ally, to accommodate it, it cannot actually be in the interest of the PRC to unnecessarily fuel a local arms race, to arouse doubts about its own peaceful intentions and thereby neighboring states Encourage them to unite by working more closely with the US (or even Japan). It is also not in the Chinese interest to be publicly criticized for failure to comply with international law. Overriding military strategic interests such as the nuclear deterrent strategy, on the other hand, would be suitable to explain the Chinese preference, with which the negative counter-reactions in the region are accepted, as a less compromise-oriented and more self-confident, even robust, approach. In short, we assume that there must be a rational reason why the Chinese leadership chooses a strategy of confrontation despite rising regional tensions and negative consequences for its public image.By taking into account Chinese threat perceptions and overarching military strategic goals, which among other things depend heavily on China's space program, we believe it is possible to arrive at a more convincing explanation.

4 Control of the South China Sea as a prerequisite for a new Chinese naval and space strategy

In order to explain China's policy choices regarding the SCM, it is necessary to examine in more detail the military-strategic benefits of exercising control over this sea area. Furthermore, the question arises why China has started to invest heavily in the militarization of the SCM since the beginning of 2013.

This article is based on the basic assumption that China's SCM policy can best be understood as a side effect of a much broader strategic goal that can be traced back to two causes:

(1) China is trying to catch up with the United States and Russia in terms of its strategic nuclear weapons capabilities, and therefore regards the SCM as a necessary strategic bastion to enable its strategic submarines to operate safely. It is therefore trying to create a protected area of ​​operation for its nuclear armed submarines in the deeper waters south of Hainan Island and within a triangle between the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The strategic submarine base on the southern tip of Hainan as a safe haven and the bastion as a training and test site for its nuclear submarine fleet would bring China closer to the goal of meeting the criteria of a credible sea-based second strike capability (see Fig . 1).

(2) China's newest and most powerful spaceport, the Wenchang Cosmodrome on the northeast coast of Hainan, is of equally high strategic relevance. It was erected during the exact same period in which the current tensions arose and officially opened in 2014. In the same year, land reclamation and military reconstruction activities in the SCM reached an unprecedented level. We believe that China is interested in establishing a tiered security zone for missile launches from Wenchang into all orbits necessary to achieve China's ambitious space goals, both civilian and military.

We therefore propose adding the previously under-explored implications of China's ambitious space goals - and the Wenchang Cosmodrome's contribution to achieving them - to the issue of nuclear deterrence when discussing China's security priorities and intentions in the SCM. The following sections explain these ideas in more detail.

4.1 The South China Sea as a strategic nuclear bastion

The concept of a sea area as a strategic bastion for the use of nuclear armed submarines stems from the Soviet military doctrine and is still relevant in Russia.[45] Since the People's Liberation Army (henceforth: VBA) has never officially mentioned the strategic importance of the SCM for China's future nuclear disposition, this aspect has received little attention for a long time. However, several indications suggest that the VBA's nuclear deterrent strategy provides the context within which China's construction of bases in the SCM can be explained.[46] Operating nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed strategic submarines (SSBN) on extensive global patrols is a technical and operational challenge for even the most advanced naval forces in the world. The extreme standards of operational readiness deemed necessary during the Cold War to achieve credible second strike capability through sea-based nuclear deterrence were detailed by a former U.S. submarine commander.[47] The Soviet Navy chose a different approach that was easier to implement: by making an offensive weapon system - the submarine - the object of its own defense strategy, it practiced the so-called bastion concept:

“The influx of SS-N-8 missile-armed Delta SSBNs gave the Soviet Union the potential to launch attacks on the United States from its home waters in the Barents Sea. The Northern Fleet defined the Barents Sea (and later the Sea of ​​Okhotsk) as closed areas of operation for this SSBN. These 'bastions' were heavily defended by attack submarines, surface ships and air forces. The strategic submarines and the bastion concept have over time been recognized as the core of Russia's second strike capability ”.[48]

Given the technical difficulty of conducting SSBN patrols in remote sea areas and even under the Arctic ice, and the close kinship between Chinese and Soviet military cultures, it seems plausible to assume that China is opting for a variant of the old Soviet bastion concept for its own nuclear second strike capability rather than copying the far more difficult approach of conducting global deterrence patrols that the US, France and the UK have taken. For such patrols, Chinese SSBNs would have to be able to cross the closely monitored "First Chain of Islands" without being located and in doing so, early detection by enemy anti-submarine systems operated by the USA and its allies at the starting points and on the outer edge of the SCM , to avoid. Michael McDevitt points out that such “straits can be used to maximize the ability to detect and track enemy SSBNs”.[49] We therefore agree with the following assessment by Mathieu Duchâtel and Eugenia Kazakova:

“Chinese military activities in the SCM are likely to be determined in part by the vulnerability of its nuclear submarines. If you have this option Not There is a risk that a key feature in China's threat perception and national security policy will be overlooked. Tensions in the SCM should therefore not only be seen in the light of the development of conventional armed forces - a nuclear arms control component may be required to de-escalate it. In any case, the question of the extent to which nuclear deterrence shapes China's policy in the SCM requires further research and further dialogue. "[50]

This view is not entirely new. In a book from 2008, Richard D. Fisher wrote, referring to the then newly built strategic submarine base on the southern tip of Hainan:

"It is likely that the Paracel and Spratly bases will one day serve as links in a chain of sensor systems to secure the South China Sea as a 'bastion' for SSBN patrols of the VBA. If this happens, China's tolerance for US and Japanese naval activities in the region could wane. "[51]

In hindsight, Fisher's observations seem remarkably forward-looking. China's attempts to build a "Chinese Wall" of anti-submarine (ASW) systems in the SCM to deter enemy submarines from entering the security zone, and the tougher crackdown on and less tolerance for foreign reconnaissance aircraft and ships in the past few years are an indication of the goal of creating an SSBN bastion.[52] Another indication of this conclusion are the large helicopter bases established on Palm Island and Duncan Island in the Paracel Islands, which could become a cornerstone of Chinese ASW efforts to locate and prevent enemy submarines from entering deter the protected area.[53] There are similar facilities on the smaller, innermost three Spratly islands, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef and Johnson South Reef.Are vehicles allowed in the IIT

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