There are (more and more) missiles on the road.
What we call here “the great roads” are created as answers to the necessity for Russia and China to connect Asian countries with resources from and markets of Russia and Europe. After having seen the ways the Russian are militarizing their Northern Sea Route (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Great Resources Roads- Part 1 – Russia”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, February 20, 2017), we shall focus in this article on the militarization of some maritime segments of the Chinese New Silk Road and what it means for the economic and social development of the “Middle Kingdom”. We shall more particularly point out how sections of the maritime New Silk Road become therefore protected in the framework of a tense geopolitical environment brought about by climate change and resource depletion.
On 7 September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, also called the “New Silk Road” (NSR), in Astana, during a state visit in Kazakhstan.
This Chinese strategy is aimed at creating a planetary-wide “attraction system” from the outside to China. It is necessary to channel in the mineral, energy, and food resources needed by China in order to keep developing itself, while ensuring the social cohesion of its 1.400 billion strong population (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road, from oil wells to the Moon … and beyond!”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6, 2015).
In this first part, we shall see how the important segment of the maritime New Silk Road, which the South China Sea has also become, is militarized and what it means for business.
The militarization of the maritime New Silk Road
The NSR is a new expression of the Chinese philosophical and strategic thought, grounded in an understanding of the spatial dimension of China as well as of the different countries that are involved in the deployment of the NSR. Space is conceived as a support to spread Chinese influence and power to the “outside”, but also to allow the Middle Kingdom to “aspirate” what it needs from the “outside” to the “inside” (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014). This is why we qualify some spaces as being “useful” to the deployment of the OBOR, and why each “useful space” is related, and “useful”, to other “useful spaces”.
A fundamental “useful space” for China is the South China Sea. This sea commands the access of China to the Northern Pacific Ocean, as well as to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Malacca, and thus to the Gulf of Bengal, to the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, finally to reach the Mediterranean Sea.
However, the South China Sea and its maritime limits are disputed, at times harshly, between the different countries of the area, i.e. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia Malaysia and Brunei.
In this regard, this space plays a major role for implementing and securing the present and the future of the maritime dimension of the OBOR, which must maintain access with and between the Chinese coastal cities and harbours (Helen H. Wang, “China’s triple wins: the New Silk Roads”, Forbes, January 15, 2016). Those harbours are one of the interfaces between the “Belt” and its international reach on the one hand, and, on the other, the Chinese hinterland towards which is directed the flow of resources “vacuumed” internationally by the NSR (Jean-Michel Valantin “The New Silk Road: from oil wells … to the Moon and beyond”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6, 2015).
The South China Sea is the trade basis of the exchanges between China and its ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) partners and competitors. The annual global trade value of the South Asian Sea is of more than 5 trillion U.S. dollars and thus plays a crucial role for the maritime New Silk Road (“18 maps that explain maritime security in Asia”, Asia Maritime Transparency in Asia – Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2014).
If the militarization of the South China Sea by China and the other actors is not new, the current Chinese militarization process knows a new development with the creation of eight artificial islands, some of them enormous, such as the “Mischief reef”, which covers almost 200 km2, in the Spratly Islands, (Steve Mollman “Photos: how a “fishermen’s shelter” became on stilts became a Chinese military base in the South China Sea?” Quartz, December 15, 2016). Those artificial islands appear as being militarized, as indicates the analysis of aerial pictures, released by the Centre for International and Strategic Relations (Mollman, ibid).
This on-going militarization is a reinforcement of the already important Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, in a highly militarized area, which is also the area of responsibility of the US Seventh fleet and of the Japanese navy, that led joint naval manoeuvres there with the US Navy in September 2016 (“Japan to boost South China Sea role with training patrols with U.S : minister”, Reuters, September 16, 2016 and
Kyle Mizokami, “What makes Chinese fake islands military bases in the South China Sea so dangerous?”, The National Interest, February 12, 2017).
In 2016, the Chinese military also installed Chinese HQ-9 missile batteries on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands, in the northern part of the South China Sea. The HQ-9 missiles, which design is close to the Russian S-300 missile, is a radar homing surface to air missile, with a 200 km range (Jon Tomlinson, “More Chinese missiles bound for disputed islands”, Fox News, December 23, 2016).
It is interesting to note that China has bought three regiments of S-400 missiles, meaning 48 launchers and dozens of missiles. Those missile regiments are currently being built and should be delivered in 2018. S-400 batteries are weapons systems able to track up to 100 flying targets and to engage 6 of them simultaneously; they are fully automated and have land and sea variants. Their range reaches 400 km (Wikipedia S-300 missile system). They can disable any kind of modern military aircraft, even stealth ones, with the assumed exception of the American F22-Raptor, and have an anti access/ denial area function, meaning that these weapons are meant to block an attacking flying force to enter into the air perimeter protected by S-400 batteries, as these missiles can be very precisely guided towards their targets. Knowing the cost of military airplanes, and the length and value of military pilots training, the kind of loss so entailed would be very quickly unsustainable for any military on Earth (Dave Majumdar, “No fly zoner: Russia’s lethal S-400 goes global“, The National Interest, December 18, 2015).
Furthermore, the S-400 complex systems are able to coordinate themselves with other surface to air weapons systems, such as the S-300s. As we underlined in our previous article, in practical terms, these weapons systems and the system of systems that integrate them into a single defence system, create an envelope of protection for the forces, the authorities and the territory of those who install and use the system (Dave Majumdar, ibid). Thus, the missiles bought by the Chinese can drastically limit and degrade the operational freedom of any aerial force acting into its perimeter.
Moreover, since the start of January 2017 the Chinese maritime presence has taken a new dimension with the drills conducted in the South China Sea, which included the Liaoning aircraft carrier escorted by five warships. It is not any more “simply” the presence of combat ships and submarines, because the function of an aircraft carrier is to dramatically expand the capability of force projection of the fleet to which it belongs, through the use of aircrafts . (“Chinese warships enter South China Sea near Taiwan in a show of force”, The Guardian, 27 December 2016). Furthermore, after the contentious exchanges between U.S. president Donald Trump and Taiwan Premier, seeming to question the “One China policy”, the Taiwan Strait has been flown over by a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber, already used to launch nuclear bombs on test sites. As a result the Chinese authorities probably wished to remind notably the U.S., that they have even more capabilities to militarize and to assert their strategic and operational presence in this contended area (Jon Sharman, “China flies nuclear bomber over South China Sea as a “message” to Donald Trump”, The Independent, 11 December 2016).
In other terms, the South China Sea, rife with tensions, knows a new level of Chinese militarization, while the Middle Kingdom is implementing the land and maritime NSR initiative, grounded in the absolute necessity for China to access energy, as well as mineral resources.
Furthermore, it is likely that the South China Sea seabed called the South China Sea platform could hold major oil and gas deposits, with possible reserves of 750 millions of barrels to 2 billions barrels of oil and more than 266 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (Tim Daiss, “Why the South China Sea has more oil than you think?”, Forbes, 22 May, 2016). To these must be added the vast potential reserves of phosphates (of great importance for agriculture to produce fertilizers), and of polymetallic nodules, which greatly attract the interest of heavy industries (Hélène Lavoix, “Deep Sea Resources brief”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, “China’s lifting pump system for deep-sea mining completed its first test trial”, China Minmetals corporation, 26 June 2016).
The natural resources of the South China Sea also include its fisheries, with consequences in terms of food security. The South China Sea is one of the richest maritime ecological systems on Earth, with more than 3 365 different fish species, very important reef areas, as well as giant clams (Rachaele Bale, “One the world’s biggest fisheries is on the verge of collapse”, National Geographic, August 29, 2016). These biological resources attract the fishing fleets of more than seven nations.
In this regard, China is notably developing a system of joint operability between its coast guard fleet and its 50 000 strong fishing fleet, dubbed the “fishing militia” (Megha Rajagopalan, “China trains “fishing militia” to sail into disputed waters“, Reuters, April 30, 2016). The Chinese government is strongly supporting the modernization of the fleet through heavy subsidies and the replacement of old ships by new ones, with a steel hull. Meanwhile, the owners can equip their vessels with Beido systems, the Chinese Global positioning system, which puts them in direct contact with the coast guard fleet (John Ruwitch, “Satellites and seafood: China keeps fishing fleet connected in disputed waters”, Reuters, 27 July 2014). Fishermen also receive basic military navy training, especially on manoeuvering (Ibid).
The South China Sea plays a major role as far as the Chinese food security is concerned. The depletion of the fisheries near the Chinese coast is driving the fishing fleet farther and farther in the South China Sea, sometimes triggering incidents between ships of different countries.. This problem is compounded by the fact that seafood plays a basic role in Chinese food security considering Chinese culinary tradition and economy: the Chinese people eat more than 35 kg of fish annually, whilst the average global consumption is of 18 kg (“The consumption of fish and fish products in the Asia-Pacific region based on household surveys”, FAO, December 2015.
From militarization to business development
It must be noted that this militarization process is accompanied by another process: Chinese business development in the South China Sea. For example, Sansha City, a city created by China in 2012 on Woody Island, hosts companies that operate in a wide range of sectors, from agriculture to tourism, transport, water management, and finance, such as the mammoth Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (Lee Seok Hwai “Top firms set up shop on disputed South China Sea Island”, The China Post, November 28, 2016).
The Chinese development of the South China Sea is an attractor for Chinese as well as for foreign companies. For example, it can be noted that the company CCCC Dredging, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Communications and Constructions Company, after having built the Chinese artificial islands, has signed a deal for land reclaim with the Filipino government, during a state visit of president Duterte in China in October 2016 (Laura Zhou, “Chinese island-building firm wins contract with South China Sea rival claimant,the Philippines“, South China Morning Post, 27 October 2016).
The militarization process and the geopolitical tensions in this area are also creating direct opportunities for some European companies. For example, companies – for instance German MTU – selling dual use (civil-military) technology such as ship engines, which can be used by Chinese submarines (even though arms sales to China are embargoed by the EU, the sale of dual technologies is authorised), take advantage of this geopolitical uncertainty. (“German companies profiting from rising tensions in the South China Sea“, Facing Finance, 24 August 2016).
Once more, this shows that geopolitical uncertainty is not so frightening once it is properly handled analytically. It may mean loss of business if companies are unable to see beyond superficial news. On the contrary, it may mean new opportunities and to the least a strengthening of policies if the right process is followed. Already, once the crucial building blocks of an anticipation analysis for a specific issue are understood – as done here in the case of the South China Sea – some new elements emerge that may, once the strategic foresight and warning analysis is completed, be injected in the design of a proper answer strategy.
With the second part we shall see how this militarization of the Chinese commodity “attractor” is implemented in the Arabian Sea and what it means in strategic terms for China.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Subi Reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, in May 2015. The source claims it is Mischief Reef, which is clearly wrong when compared with other photos of both reefs. Date 21 mai 2015 – United States Navy – Par United States Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons