The Real Game-Changers of the Pacific Basin

By Craig Hooper and Commander David M. Slayton, U.S. Navy

In the United States, analysis of China’s nascent amphibious fleet is de-emphasized in favor of monitoring China’s pursuit of a training carrier, long-range ballistic “carrier-killer” missiles and other “sexier” weaponry, reflecting a wider, deep-seated bias within the American national-security community. To Washington defense elites, China’s low-tech amphibious platforms are comfortably unthreatening.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first modern blue-water amphibious assault vessel, the Kunlunshan , a Type 071 Yuzhao-class landing platform dock (LPD), earned little more than a dismissive shrug as she entered service in 2007. The Yuzhao class itself, based on 25-year-old technology, bears a strong resemblance to the U.S. Navy’s 12 Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry –class amphibious transports. Little more than a traditional battle taxi, the Chinese ship can project a reinforced battalion of 400–800 marines, some landing craft, and a brace of midsized helicopters into the global littorals.

Beyond Taiwan

In terms of technical interest, China’s anti-access and area-denial investments attract far more analytical attention than the PLAN’s mundane force of second-string amphibious assault ships. It is perilous to forget that China’s 27 good-sized, medium-endurance Yuting II, Yuting I, or Yukan-class (Type 072III, Type 072II, and Type 072, respectively) LSTs can support the projection of amphibious forces beyond the Taiwanese coast. These basic platforms may not be up to Western standards of comfort and reliability, but they are, just like their World War II–era predecessors, perfectly capable of projecting amphibious power into the Pacific.

Beijing’s investments in modestly militarized amphibious-assault support platforms have also been overlooked. China’s 25,000-ton hospital ship, the Anwei-class Daishandao , or “Peace Ark,” coupled with a similarly sized, newly launched troop ship, all offer simple, cheap transport for hundreds of Chinese personnel. Policymakers fail to fully comprehend that these platforms, supported by China’s large amphibious cargo vessels, the Danyao-class Fishery Law Enforcement Command supply ship and two Dayun-class South Sea bastion supply ships, bolstered by an enormous blue-water civilian fleet and a potent naval militia, can do good service in many permissive amphibious contingencies.

To America’s blue-water warfighters, all eager to point out that nobody has engaged in a contested landing since Inchon, China’s amphibious platforms are not significant. They are. On the “hot” littoral battlefields of the future, the PLAN’s big, slow amphibians have little value, and, in any conventional conflict, those ships will disappear quickly, buried under a hail of ordnance.

But outside of an all-out blue-water fight, the geopolitical utility of China’s amphibious force deserves a far more rigorous analysis. Amphibious forces are meant to be used. According to recent congressional testimony by Marine Commandant James F. Amos, U.S. amphibious forces have responded to crises and contingencies 114 times over the past 20 years. China, in turn, has landed—and defended—marines on the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, and is set to expand its amphibious repertoire. Beijing’s growing arsenal of cheap, simple-tech amphibious assault ships enables the PLAN to unilaterally project power well beyond Taiwan and the first island chain. The world is unready for the day China starts using its marines as a geopolitical tool.

What Are They Up To?

At present, China has dispatched its new blue-water amphibious assault platforms to support popular multinational maritime-security initiatives, gaining valuable expeditionary experience and international “soft-power” credibility. In 2010, the first deployment of the Type 071 amphibious transport vessel to antipiracy duties off Somalia passed uneventfully. The subsequent dispatch of China’s new hospital ship to Africa and Asia was a success, projecting the PLAN well beyond China’s traditional sphere of influence.

Today, as a second Type 071 amphibious transport nears completion, local observers now expect China to build up to six Type 071s along with six flat-deck helicopter carriers. In all, China aims for a good-sized set of first-generation blue-water amphibious assault platforms, aligning well with the amphibious forces of Japan, South Korea, and other Pacific neighbors.

To the international community, China’s deployments and planned amphibian buildup is a welcome sign that Beijing is set to accept greater responsibilities in the global commons. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated before the 111th Congress in early 2010, “China can—and should—accept greater responsibility for and partner more willingly to safeguard the global trade and investment infrastructure.” With increasingly capable—and reliable—amphibious vessels, the PLAN will range farther afield, supporting multinational initiatives, peacekeeping missions for the United Nations, or other soft-power projects.

But for the PLA, the training-based operational incentives to support multinational cooperation will, in time, wane, leaving China with the skill and confidence to independently pursue its core national interests. Amphibious forces, unlike traditional combat-based hulls, are utilitarian and meant to be used for a range of strategically useful contingencies. As Beijing starts demanding a strategic return on its naval investments, the PLAN amphibious fleet will lead the way.

The initial PLAN efforts to project amphibious power beyond the first island chain will come in the coral atolls and volcanic islands of the South Pacific. Off the world’s geopolitical radar, the tiny independent countries of Oceania make for a neglected diplomatic, intelligence, and economic backwater. To most harried U.S. national-security policymakers, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia are idyllic, peaceful pieces of paradise, well within the U.S. sphere of influence. But they are neither peaceful nor secure. Many South Pacific islands are troubled, ill-governed, and facing enormous economic and environmental challenges. And as native islanders grapple with an uncertain future, many are turning to violence, attacking newly arrived ethnic Chinese who have, in disproportionate numbers, made their home in the deep Pacific.

With those ethnic Chinese communities under regular threat, few Asian navies have a more compelling rationale to apply amphibious force in Oceania than China. But unilateral projection of Chinese amphibious forces into the Pacific—no matter how strongly justified—risks pushing the entire region into perpetual crisis.

The Peril to Oceania

People of Chinese ethnicity have long dwelt in the Pacific. But as China opened three decades ago, an estimated 200,000 Chinese migrants left the mainland to settle in the fragilely governed, economically moribund South Pacific islands. Over the intervening years those migrants prospered, though at the same time they resisted cultural assimilation, establishing thriving, culturally separate “Chinatowns” and ethnically exclusive business networks.

The new migrants have been enormously successful. On Tonga, “newly arrived” Chinese own almost 70 percent of the existing small-business concerns. In the Marshall Islands, 20 years after officials used semi-legitimate passport sales as a means to jump-start immigration, native-born Marshall Islanders now own fewer than half the 146 small and medium-sized businesses in the capital atoll of Majuro, according to Agence France-Presse.

But as the old political and economic order shifts, disenfranchised native islanders are growing resentful, harboring deep-seated suspicions of the “new” Chinese arrivals.

Given the right trigger, this simmering racial tension explodes into extreme violence.

In 2006, rioters in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital, burned 97 percent of the local Chinatown district. The same year, race riots in the Tongan Island archipelago left eight dead, and in the capital city of Nuku’alofa, much of the Chinese-dominated business district was destroyed. In Papua New Guinea, anti-Chinese rioting, reportedly involving tens of thousands of people, broke out in May 2009. At least four people were killed, and Chinese-owned businesses were pillaged throughout the country.

To date, China’s response to ethnic violence has been measured, limited to official calls for the protection of Chinese citizens, some deft, low-profile evacuations via chartered jet, and subsequent no-strings-attached aid to support rebuilding. Nevertheless, as these provocations continue, protests from Chinese diplomats and the Chinese domestic press are growing louder.

The failure of the Pacific’s weakly governed island states to protect Chinese business interests and citizens of Chinese ethnicity is becoming a higher priority for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. After largely ignoring a trickle of race-based provocations throughout the 1990s, the Chinese government is signaling its impatience. In a 19 May 2009 briefing after a spasm of ethnically charged violence in Papua New Guinea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu warned, “The Chinese government places great importance on the safety of Chinese institutions and citizens in the PNG.”

The islands are on a collision course. A stronger China will not readily tolerate chronic anti-Chinese violence, and yet, in the Pacific Basin, continued Chinese immigration, resource depletion, sea-level rise, and crime-driven institutionalized corruption make continued ethnic violence a certainty.

At some level, prestige is at stake; no country can long tolerate a besieged embassy or news of beleaguered nationals dying at the hands of a mob. Given the frequency and intensity of anti-Chinese violence, the prospect of Chinese military operations in the deep Pacific is certain.

Beijing has little to lose. Oceania, with few security forces capable of mounting more than token resistance, makes an almost ideal region for the PLAN to test its fledgling fleet of modern amphibians—and if a local intervention can be converted into a long-term strategic gain for China, so much the better.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Continued anti-Chinese violence in the Pacific Basin will put the United States, France, and other Pacific allies in a tough political quandary. Modern precedent is set; when U.S. or Western nationals are threatened, U.S. Marines inevitably appear off the coast to provide security assistance or arrange evacuations. And with nationals threatened, America has, on occasion, dispensed with diplomatic niceties.

The United States and the international community can only expect a concomitant response when Chinese citizens overseas are endangered.

But in the geopolitical toolbox, a national military response to aid threatened nationals can become much more than a muscular form of consular support. Rescuing a “threatened national” is a time-honored means to justify strategically advantageous “non-combatant” operations, constabulary actions—even outright annexation. Just as Germany exploited an outbreak of anti-German violence to seize Qingdao in 1897, establishing a base for Imperial Germany’s forward-deployed Far East Squadron, China may consider a similar gambit to obtain a forward base to, in part, project power directly into America’s deep Pacific redoubts.

Even worse for the diplomatic community, America has used “threatened nationals” to justify strategically advantageous interventions. In 1983 the presence of purportedly endangered American medical students on the Caribbean island of Grenada helped bolster the public case for Operation Urgent Fury and led the forcible rollback of Cuban influence.

At present, nothing is in place to dissuade China from transforming an operation to protect Chinese nationals into an annexation, remaining on station to bring in troops, anti-access/area-denial weaponry, and more. For China, a Pacific lodgment would be a strategic equivalent of Diego Garcia, and, once securely in place ashore, staying may prove worthwhile.

Prior territorial gambles have yielded the PLA leadership enormous dividends. Throughout the 1990s, as China landed forces and developed a permanent presence on Mischief Reef and other South China Sea islets, the international community lacked the intestinal fortitude to expel a tiny Chinese vanguard, perched at the outermost limits of Beijing’s then-modest air and naval forces. Aggressive Chinese diplomacy and steady, regular reinforcement eventually allowed the PLA to expand its initial footprint and establish “facts on the ground” that, in time, formed the real basis for China’s recent claim to the entire South China Sea.

Lacking credible deterrence, China’s seizure and effective appropriation of the Paracel Islands and certain Spratly sea features is part of a pattern the world must expect to emerge again. Calibrated passivity on the part of the United States, Australia, Japan, and other key beneficiaries of Pacific stability seems only to have whetted the Chinese appetite for maritime lebensraum .

The Pacific Needs a NATO

The United States has little time left to engage like-minded regional Pacific allies and forge a viable strategic plan for the region before China finds an excuse to mount unilateral interventions in the Pacific. Without dedicated attention and continued efforts to update the U.S. Pacific Command Theater Security and Cooperation Plan (TSCP), a more aggressive Foreign Internal Defense (FID) effort, and regular engagement, China will have an unmatched opportunity to gain permanent footholds in Oceania.

The region is overdue for a diplomatic surge. While the former Cold War battlefield of France is host to eight State Department offices, the United States only manages to maintain seven embassies in the underdeveloped countries of the South and Central Pacific. American diplomats must move beyond their tiny outposts in Fiji, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Palau, Samoa, and Timor-Leste to become a persistent—and numerous—presence in the region.

Only a permanent diplomatic presence can establish firm partnerships and allow for a more informed picture of what is happening on the ground. If a permanent presence is impossible, then the Navy’s new Joint High-Speed Vessel, Littoral Combat Ships, or the Coast Guard’s National-Security Cutters can be equipped with diplomatic “mission modules” and serve as mobile gap-fillers in isolated, representation-starved islets.

To promote stability, State Department diplomats require sufficient resources to grant economic, security, and law-enforcement/anti-corruption aid. In an effort to bolster long-term viability of Pacific nations, services that help the region safeguard its enormous Exclusive Economic Zones deserve more funding. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy’s innovative “Fight for Fish” initiative merits expansion to improve regional surveillance and indigenous fisheries enforcement. More small, powerful patrol craft, similar to those produced under Australia’s innovative Pacific Patrol Boat Program, along with operational support and training funds, can help the Pacific’s smallest and weakest nations march toward economic self-sufficiency, reducing the chance of racial upheaval.

Within the larger regional security framework, the United States and other Pacific players have a strategic obligation to build a collaborative all-hazards crisis-response mechanism so, in the event of civic dislocation, disaster, or ethnic violence, sufficient multinational forces can be in place quickly enough to deter a unilateral intervention, annexation, or establishment of a permanent presence—lowering the risk of an uninvited Chinese Diego Garcia in the Pacific.

The emergence of Chinese blue-water amphibs is not the end of the world. The PLAN can and will be helpful contributors in the maritime commons. And in the final analysis, any country has a right to protect its citizens. It’s just that Beijing’s growing frustration with the long-established balance of power in the Pacific, coupled with China’s habit of embarking on bold, geopolitically savvy land-grabs cannot easily be dismissed.

With that threat in mind, the maintenance of credible surveillance and forcible-entry resources in the region is critical. Even a basic task force of U.S. Marines on board Joint High-Speed Vessels and Littoral Combat Ships, capable of deploying quickly and landing in lightly contested conditions to dilute an unwanted unilateral Chinese incursion, would prove useful in dampening the appetite for risk-taking within the PLA leadership.

The Amphibious Era Isn’t Over

China is not alone. Modern amphibious-warfare platforms, as a valued prerequisite for big-navy status, are proliferating all over the world, offering relatively low-cost sea-basing options to emerging naval forces. The worldwide race to deploy amphibious assault vessels reflects the high-profile successes the United States has enjoyed in leveraging amphibious forces for theater engagement, security cooperation, and crisis-response missions. But America’s success may have been a strategic anomaly, the benefit of uncontested naval supremacy and a unified sense of strategic aims within the international community.

Over the past 30 years of relatively harmonious amphibious operations with like-minded partners, America has forgotten big blue-water amphibious vessels can be as useful in sowing disorder as they are in imposing stability. And with more nations poised to pursue core national interests overseas, the long-unquestioned right of intervention from the sea is set to grow into a far more complex—and contentious—geopolitical challenge.

The simultaneous emergence of two independent-minded blue-water amphibious forces is unprecedented in modern maritime history. Adapting will not be easy as Beijing—as expected—mimics America’s long-standing amphibious practices. Should China detour from the globally accepted menu of “acceptable” operations and use its amphibious capabilities to expand China’s maritime domain, confrontation may prove inevitable.

To curb any such Chinese enthusiasm, America needs to spend less time fretting about China’s high-tech military baubles and get back to the basics of building regional security blocs. The first step is to recognize the potential utility of low-tech PLAN amphibs in tomorrow’s Pacific.

 

Dr. Hooper, a San Francisco–based national-security researcher, is director of the New Pacific Institute. He blogs at NextNavy.com and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .

Commander Slayton is a national-security affairs fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A career naval flight officer, he has flown more than 300 combat missions, accumulating more than 4,300 flight hours and 490 carrier-arrested landings in the EA-6B Prowler, S-3B Viking, and six other tactical aircraft.

 

Dr. Hooper, a lecturer in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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