The US and its allies will find their military options increasingly curtailed by China’s defensive plans.
The long term strategy behind China’s military operations in the South China Sea is gradually being unveiled. While its coercive and intimidating tactics seek to erode US regional ties and pressure smaller dispute claimants into deference, its deployment of short-to-long range capabilities — from surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles to H-6K bombers and the Liaoning aircraft carrier — reveals a strategic intent to achieve maritime superiority within the ‘first island chain’ and increasingly project power at longer ranges.
This strategy belies China’s broader objective for the Indo-Pacific in the years ahead. According to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ‘1.5 war’ doctrine, the potential for a chain-reaction of conflict stemming from regional disputes is prompting Beijing to develop capabilities that can fight a major war at one end of the region while resisting attacks from the other. Given India’s 60,000-strong garrison in South Tibet and the potential revival of the ‘Quad 2.0’ (a US-India-Japan-Australia alliance), it is possible that China may be preparing to resist an Indian attack on the western land frontier while fighting a naval war in the East or South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing’s development of a blue water navy and the extension of its strategic presence beyond its immediate backyard serve this purpose. Beijing hopes to check potential adversaries abroad by holding strategic ports and outposts from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, while enhancing its mobility to manoeuvre across different theatres of operation by connecting logistics and supply routes and shortening deployment time.
Such developments have significant ramifications to the nature of conflict surrounding the South China Sea. In the event of war, the theatres of military operation separating the South China Sea from other sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific (including the Indian Ocean, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific Ocean) may be blurred. A military crisis in one area involving China may threaten to spill-over to another as the PLA seeks to prevent itself from being encircled by powers from different angles.
In the year ahead, Beijing is likely to deploy more long-range and force projection capabilities in the South China Sea in order to support its broader operations in the Indo-Pacific. Keep a watch on its second aircraft carrier, a modified version of Liaoning, which according to the US Defense Department will soon commence operation in 2019.