China’s “Anti-access/area denial” strategy in the South China Sea

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Chinas Anti access area denial strategy in the South China Sea“Anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) is a maritime strategy created to deny free movement of adversaries’ naval forces in a certain combat space. To become a maritime power, China is employing this strategy in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the adjacent water of the Taiwan Strait to help it clear its path to the greater ocean.

Russia uses the specialized maritime security terminologies: a “fortress strategy” and a “counter-maritime access strategy” to refer to A2/AD. Powerful navies have traditionally adopted maritime control strategies by deploying aircraft carriers, fighter aircrafts and combat ships. However, “counter-maritime access” is more a defensive strategy that employs the air and maritime defence systems, rapid attack submarines, war planes, rocket launchers and inland sea surveillance systems to reconnoitre the targets.

In the last decade, China has used different measures to impede the freedom of navigation conducted by the US and its allies’ naval forces, and concomitantly increase the potential risk for warships that operate in disputed waters of escalating tension. China employs the “counter-maritime access” strategy to challenge the power deployment capability of the US Navy in areas of pivotal interests, creating doubt among US allies in the Pacific over the United States Pacific Command's (USPACOM) capability to respond to security concerns.

To implement the “fortress strategy” (as called by Russia) in the South China Sea, beside establishing submarine bases in Hainan Islands, China has hectically reclaimed and expanded different features in the Paracel Islands and seven features it has already occupied in the Spratly Islands in the last ten years. Moreover, it has built numerous military facilities, including airstrips for fighter aircrafts, hangars and mooring facilities to provide logistics support for China’s warships operating in the South China Sea. China has also set up air defence and radar system to transform features in the South China Sea into a military fortress.

Making yet another step in the implementation of the A2/AD strategy, China established an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and the adjacent waters of the Senkaku Islands. However, it has been encountering in this attempt in real terms due to the Japanese, US, and South Korean rejection and the lack of aviation equipment. At the same time, China also plans the establishment of a South China Sea ADIZ. After essentially completing the militarization of the South China Sea, there have recently been rumours that China would set up a South China Sea ADIZ at an appropriate time. According to some, there is a possibility that Beijing proactively spread the rumours to test public opinion. It is apparent that the establishment of a South China Sea ADIZ would face greater challenges.

Military strategists have pointed out the following key factors to assure China’s effective implementation of the A2/AD strategy:

First, the possession of a reliable long-range air defence system. The early warning aircraft KJ-2000 of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA), together with the anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft Y-9, might play the leading role in giving early warning to China in the near future and concurrently is key to promote China’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. Another pillar that could help China obtain such goal is to equip the islands with anti-submarine ballistic missile system DF-21/ DF-26 to perfect the capability of countering access and threat from cruisers, including the US aircraft carrier.

Second, the use of naval bases in the South China Sea to deploy the Type 052 destroyers (alias the Chinese version of Aegis warship). China will deploy the Type 055destroyers, the latest version (which is categorized as cruiser due to its size and weapon system by the West), in the South China Sea. The first Type 055 destroyer was launched in January 2020, and another five are going to be in use. The primary role of these ships is to gather as a group of attack aircraft carriers. Furthermore, the Type 055 destroyers will also operate in air/water defence system to support the A2/AD strategy.

In 2019, China unveiled its marine corps with increasing strength with proven capability for transportation and expedition. China’s marine corps was escorted by attack landing ships including the latest version of LPD landing vessel. The marine corps may hold a vital role in China’s South China Sea strategy.

Third, submarines are the key factor in Beijing’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. The PLA’s naval bases in Hainan Island may hide nuclear submarines, the main force to counter other states’ cruisers in the South China Sea, and provide maritime nuclear deterrence. The deployment of submarines in the South China Sea military bases will give China enormous advantages and help narrow transporting distance, which will provide favourable conditions for rapid deployment in the entire South China Sea.

The Yulin naval base in Hainan Island will play the central role in A2/AD implementation since it could moor legion of strategic nuclear submarines. The base also possesses a huge port, which can harbour two groups of aircraft carriers or landing crafts at one time. Another submarine base is located in Longpo, South Eastern coast of Hainan Island. The base is a deep water port that contains submarine piers and a sea-based facility with tunnel entrances. Hainan Island is also considered as a potential fortress for ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of China’s maritime nuclear deterrent fleet. Hainan Island obviously plays a pivotal role in exercising China’s maritime controlling power and counter-maritime access campaigns in the South China Sea.

Beside Hainan Island, Woody Island may also hold a significant role in implementing China’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. Woody Island is the largest island in the Paracel Archipelago, which is located in a strategic location with an upgraded airstrip that can be used for China’s fighter aircraft. China’s deployment of fighter aircraft J-11 in Woody Island helps expand the scope of operation by 360 km in the South China Sea supporting China’s naval bases in Hainan Island. The Woody Island is also a potential location for the deployment of mobilized DF ballistic missile launchers, via which China will be able to attack different targets in the South China Sea. China has also transformed its new bases in the Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef into military ones strengthened its capabilities in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, these features not only give China the advantages to exercise its military power but also act as intelligence centres that provide information to the PLA’s headquarters at strategic level. China’s communication bases on these features include the underwater fibre-optic cable lines, the multi-band satellite communications system, the high frequency broadband, and radar system. In late May 2020, China laid undersea cable system connecting Tree Island, North Island, and Woody Island in the Paracel Archipelago. In 2016, China laid cables connecting Woody Island and Hainan Island. In 2017, China laid cables in Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef in Spratly Archipelago.

All these systems play a crucial role in obtaining military goals, increasing submarine detecting capability, preventing hostile forces from accessing information, and concomitantly assuring the PLA’s access to intelligence. Moreover, these outposts can command and control the Chinese maritime militia forces. China's usage of different bases on features it illegally occupies in the Spratly Archipelago can be seen through the geological survey ships Haiyang Dizhi 08’s infiltration in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam (in 2019) and Malaysia (in last April and May) or the intrusion of Chinese ships in the adjacent water of Indonesia’s Natuna Island (in late 2019, early 2020).

However, China’s adoption of “anti-access/ areal denial” strategy in the South China Sea also encounters difficulties explained as follows:

First, China’s capabilities and the PLA's weapons have not been proven in real warfare, and its soldiers have little combat experience except those gained in the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. China is thus not yet ready to confront an experienced enemy with sophisticated technology like the US. On the other hand, China will hardly gather high qualified soldiers who can catch up with its military development plans.

Second, regional states have severely lost their faith in China because of its aggression and cohesion in the South China Sea. A2/AD strategy cannot replace an effective regional foreign policy. South China Sea claimants have been drawn closer to the US and India to achieve an equilibrium given China’s assertiveness, which attributes to the risks posed to Beijing.

Additionally, Beijing’s escalating intrusions may force South China Sea coastal states to seek support from the US. Against this backdrop, it is highly likely that China will be isolated and considered as an invader. Thus, its A2/AD strategy will also face the opposition of not only regional states but the international community as well.