Undersea patrols in West Philippine Sea may roll out by yearend
China is reportedly aiming to secure air superiority over the West Philippine Sea to enhance its ability to thwart military maneuvers, especially surveillance flights by the US Navy, in the disputed areas, a Japanese newspaper report quoting security experts say.
According to a Yomiuri Shimbun report quoting Hideaki Kaneda, director of the Okazaki Institute and a former admiral in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), China will deploy at least two Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines on patrol missions to the West Philippine Sea from its base in the Hainan island in mainland China before the end of the year.
The Chinese submarines are armed with JL-2 ballistic missiles which are estimated to have a range of 7,000 kilometers.
Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of the JMSDF, said: the US will try to contain the Chinese submarines within the West Philippine Sea but if the entire South China Sea totally comes under Chinese control, it will dramatically change the military balance in the area.
The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted security experts as saying China’s “covert purpose” is for it to be able to advance its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines from the West Philippine Sea into the Pacific Ocean in the future.
“China will establish an ADIZ (air defense identification zone) along the area it claims as its territory and call for the aircraft of other countries to comply with its directives when flying in the ADIZ, as it does in the case of the East China Sea,” a Japanese defense ministry official said.
In a media forum in Quezon City in the Philippines on Saturday, a Filipino expert on China affairs said Beijing touched a “raw nerve” when it embarked on a massive island-building in occupied territories in the West Philippine Sea.
“China’s island-building was to just undermine the arbitration case filed by the Philippines and circumvent the future UN ruling, but they have now touched on a raw nerve, a strategic nerve that greatly affected the US,” Chito Sta. Romana told journalists.
“If they finish their various protective structures in the islands and put military facilities there, how will we drive them out even if we win the UN case?”
Sta. Romana, former chief of the Beijing bureau of the American network giant ABC news, said China “miscalculated” Washington’s reaction on the massive land reclamation.
He said the Chinese were only expecting another diplomatic protest from Manila – which they could easily brush aside — but the discovery of the massive land expansion sounded alarm bells in Washington.
“The were not expecting the US would react this way. So the Chinese made a tactical and strategic miscalculation,” Sta Romana said.
The Pentagon is expecting the Chinese to complete its island-building by 2017 or 2018. When completed, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, which will feature a 3,000 meter runway, would serve as a forward operation and supply base of the Chinese military.
The Kagitingan installation could also serve as an air detachment where mid-to-long range bombers and fighter jets would be pre-positioned.
“Possessing a 3,000-meter-class runway in the vast South China Sea would be very significant. If operated in combination with port and fuel storage facilities, the runway could serve as an operation and supply base for bombers.
“The entire area of the South China Sea could be covered by operating China’s military mainstay Su-30 fighters and H-6 bombers, which have operational ranges of about 1,500 kilometers and 1,800 kilometers respectively. This would make it easier to secure air superiority. If the artificial island were to become a base for fighter jets, China would be able to increase pressure on the US military, among others,” the Yomiuri Shimbun report said.
The report added that aside from being an important sea-lane, Beijing gives more importance to the West Philippine Sea because of topographical reasons, in addition to its interest in securing natural gas and other resources.
“The South China Sea is characterized by its depth. In contrast to the East China Sea, which has a depth of about 200 meters up to the Okinawa trough, the South China Sea has a complicated topographical formation with a maximum depth of about 4,000 meters. This helps enhance ‘the degree of freedom of action’ for submarines, indispensable for offshore military operations when seeking to evade the enemy,” the report said.
Hideaki Kaneda, director of the Okazaki Institute and a former admiral in the Japanese Self-Defense Maritime Force, said topographical conditions in the West Philippine Sea make it a ‘sanctuary’ from possible military attacks.
“Submarines on a mission can quickly submerge in deep waters,” he said.
The US Navy has been conducting surveillance missions in the West Philippine Sea using various means including the use of P-8A Poseidon aircraft which is equipped with state-of-the-art undersea detection systems. The aircraft gained prominence when it recently allowed a CNN news crew to join a surveillance mission that was repeatedly challenged by the Chinese navy. The same aircraft was spotted on a low-level flight when the Chinese coast guard attempted to block a Philippine supply boat with journalists on board that was on its way to the Ayungin Shoal to bring supplies and provisions to the nine Philippine Marine troopers stationed in a grounded navy ship in 2014
Both incidents escalated tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
Security experts said that because of this, the Chinese aims to secure air superiority to interrupt aerial surveillance activities by US forces as well as resupply and reprovisioning flights conducted by the Philippine Air Force.
Caught in a bind
Sta. Romana said the elevation of the dispute from a purely Manila-Beijing issue into a Washington-Beijing concern has made China furious.
“They are caught in a bind. China will continue with the reclamation but they might moderate their moves because if the Chinese would bring in anti-ship missiles or anti-air missiles, this would be a different story,” he said.
Sta. Romana said China is not seeking full-blown confrontation with the US because the Chinese —which is yet to attain a middle-income country status— does not have the capability to beat the Americans militarily.
“If China will go on a full-scale confrontation over the West Philippine Sea now, they will lose, and a defeat could take them another century to overcome. What they are really doing is like slicing salami in small pieces…a short and sharp conflict. But the problem is, they sliced it too big this time with an airstrip and huge infrastructure and the US was ready to retaliate,” he pointed out.
Jose Custodio, a military historian, agreed, noting that Chinese military would really be pale in comparison with that of the United States and that Beijing’s actions are only determined by its capabilities.
“China’s military is not really powerful. In fact, it’s so far from the US.
We saw that they were building structures. They are making a push, but their military capabilities are not yet there. They won’t push it too hard.
There are limitations on what they can do for the time being,” he said.
“There is only one country that gets confused with China’s military capabilities, and that is the Philippines. The Americans are battle tested, while China’s military reputation is just hype—a hype that could also be created by the Americans to justify their actions in the West Philippine Sea,” Custodio added.