China’s growing presence in the South China Sea, and its construction of artificial islands has been a regular staple of regional news coverage. The aforementioned islands are the latest development in ongoing territorial disputes in the region, with China seeking to bolster its extensive claims by dredging islands and installing maritime and military presences on them. These actions have raised alarm in various countries – such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia – that also border the South China Sea.
These smaller nations have sought to hedge against China, with many seeking to establish or increase their military cooperation with the United States. Washington is seen as balancing China in the region, acting as a voice amplifier for the concerns of these smaller countries. In response, Beijing has repeatedly accused Washington of meddling in regional affairs, inciting anti-Chinese sentiments and increasing tensions. These claims come on the heals of America’s “pivot to Asia”: Washington’s post-Cold War re-alignment of defence priorities from Europe to Asia.
China’s claim to the South China Sea – commonly known as the “Nine Dash Line” is part of larger Chinese efforts to establish defence buffer zones out from the mainland; in a region that is awash with U.S military allies and assets. For decades Chinese defence policy has been centered on massed land based assets arrayed along the long border with the former-USSR, which Beijing considered its largest threat. More recently, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China’s integration into the international politico-economic system, Beijing has sought to diversify and modernize its military. Specifically, China is seeking to create an area of safety were is can park its naval assets, thus allowing for regional power projection, but also as a forward operating area.
Of particular interest to the United States, is China’s growing submarine (including nuclear submarines) fleet. These vessels pose risks on two fronts: firstly as part of China’s nuclear deterrent, which is diversifying away from a reliance on land based delivery systems, and secondly because of the threat posed by submarines to aircraft carriers – the stable of American power projection. Submarines are harder to detect, and less susceptible to surface and air attacks – two realms where the U.S has a clear operational superiority.
Another reason for seeking increased ballistic capabilities, is that current diesel submarines of the Chinese navy are noisy and easy to detect. By hunkering down in line with a so called “bastion strategy” China need not improve the noise reduction capabilities of subs, if they can reach targets farther away from the safety of the South China Sea.
As of 2014, China had 56 attack submarines, including five of which were nuclear powered, with at least three of these capable of launching ballistic missiles. Beijing is also seeking to add five more such vessels in the future. That China is pursuing these weapon’s systems is not surprising in itself, since all other members of the P5 (Permanent Five) nations (United States, Russia, UK, France, China) on the UN Security Council have fleets of ballistic missile capable submarines.