The coming Red tide
Although Singapore is far enough from China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) that our Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry staffers can enjoy their weekend normally, the question that begs asking is whether Chinese nationalistic endeavours will stop at just the establishment of an air curtain off the Chinese seaboard.
If this is a sign of things to come, one can expect even more from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) when — and not if — it builds the military muscle to project and sustain its naval presence in the South China Sea.
At the current state of play, China’s ADIZ can be monitored using its mainland air defence assets and naval units maintaining a radar picket offshore. Naval aviation is confined to shipborne helicopters or mainland-based warplanes whose operational radii are tethered to their air-to-air capability or internal fuel and drop tanks.
Their sole aircraft carrier, Liaoning, is more of a prop, a showpiece that makes an impressive backdrop for photo shoots involving carrier-borne fighters or People’s Liberation Army Navy heavy units.
That single training carrier — devoid of an established concept of operations grounded on sound naval doctrine, operating with no organic airborne early warning and control aircraft, sailing without the security of an outer perimeter of light forces, submarines and an inner ring of heavy naval units, and no underway replenishment support ships worth talking about — is not a serious contender should she be pitted against present-day naval forces in the region.
PRC NAVAL AVIATION IN 2030
But telescope China’s military capabilities 15 years forward, sustained at the current growth trajectory, and one is likely to count two fully operational aircraft carriers that can project China’s military ambitions closer to our neighbourhood.
By 2030, the ruffled feathers over the ADIZ would have long since settled, the zone accepted as status quo.
By 2030, regional analysts would have been desensitised by years of watching China’s air and naval forces operate in the South China Sea.
That may pave the way for China to assert a stronger presence in the neighbourhood, using its South China Sea islets as anchor points and the aircraft carriers as patches of sovereign Chinese territory from which it can generate and sustain naval air cover.
Having China declare and secure territorial waters around South China Sea islets would change the game for defence planners so used to watching what the neighbours are up to. Emboldened by the ADIZ experience acquired in 2013, it would be interesting to theorise if they would pull a similar gig in the South China Sea once they have the military muscle to back words with deed.
All the present-day talk about military options against China and analysis of how Red China is militarily weak compared to regional forces ignore two strategic realities.
First, military action against the PRC must reckon how the industry would react when China is, and will continue to be, essentially the world’s factory. Hitting China is unlike bombing the Ruhr during World War II. Industry magnets would have done their sums and quiet lobbying may hamstring military options, particularly when Western economic interests are at stake should things turn nasty.
Second, order-of-battle comparisons and us-versus-them scenarios generated by defence analysts and armchair generals from <insert your country of choice> seem to ignore the reality that such tussles might see Chinese tactical nukes thrown into the equation.
What then? Yes, it is mad. But many wars have stemmed from miscalculations of minor consequence snowballing into wider strategic effect (think about how the complex interplay of strategic alliances led to World War I after Archduke Ferdinand was shot).
DEARTH OF ANALYSIS
Cold War calculations benefited richly from decades of analysis which bred two or three generations of experts who devoted their lives to analysing how war across the Iron Curtain could flare.
All sorts of scenarios, from limited exchange on short warning, long war scenarios, proxy wars and launch on warning/launch on impact, to command relationships with strategic nuclear forces, second-strike capabilities and so on were studied and discussed extensively. Effects on global weather patterns were theorised (nuclear winter), movies were made and best-seller novels on Cold War battles became vacation staples.
All this brain power amassed over the years made a positive and decisive contribution to deterrence because both sides understood the chilling costs of war. And no one was left in any doubt as to the cost of miscalculation.
Compared to the Cold War, the standoff between China and its neighbours suffers from a dearth of literature which helps us get a better grasp of the situation.
TRAGIC TOLL OF MISFIRES
Concerns expressed in the past week about the ADIZ becoming a flashpoint probably stem from the realisation of the dreadful consequences that have resulted when one mixes nation willpower with misfired firepower.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister K Shanmugam said on Nov 29 at the Global Outlook Forum: “An incident can easily happen and we, the rest of the world, are to some extent hostage to what some ship captains might do. And how he might get us all involved in a conflagration that no one wants.”
The concerns are not theoretical musings or scare-mongering, but anchored in the substantial body count from the recent past in and around our immediate neighbourhood.
The April 2001 Hainan incident, which resulted when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a United States Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane off Hainan — where China’s strategic submarines are based — is one example.
The September 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 Flight KAL 007 off Russia’s Sakhalin island, after a Russian air defence fighter, guided by confused ground-controlled interception controllers in the dark, went weapons free, is another.
Farther afield, we have the July 1988 case of the US Navy Aegis cruiser, USS Vincennes, shooting down Iran Air Airbus A300 Flight 655 after mistaking the airliner for an incoming flight of Iran F-14 Tomcat warplanes. The Vincennes, in its time one of the latest US Navy warships, had info fusion capabilities that were then state-of-the-art. But this did not prevent the slaughter of innocents.
Whether it is a military-to-military encounter, warplane versus airliner or warship versus airliner, the tragedies that unfolded are real and may be sadly replayed should push come to shove in regional air and sea lanes.
What is sobering to note is the individuals involved in shooting down the Korean and Iranian airliners were never brought to justice — which is a point ADIZ missileers and PRC foreign ministry staffers may have pondered.
THE FUTURE WE CAN EXPECT
A more robust presence by China in the South China Sea in not a cause for alarm. But it is unquestionable that the region’s strategic situation will be impacted, depending on the size, strength and longevity of Chinese military power sitting astride air and sea lanes that link South-east Asia with key markets in North Asia.
What remains to be seen is if insurance underwriters can be similarly assured if and when China’s naval ensign flies high in the South China Sea.
Wasn’t it not so long ago when Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore worked hard — collectively and energetically — to convince Lloyd’s of London to remove the “War Risk” label for the Malacca Strait due to piracy/sea robber activity?
We did so as this category would push up hull premiums and lead to higher shipping costs which, somewhere sometime downstream, would push up price tags for things we buy.
It is still some years away. Defence planners looking ahead must be aware that the current state-of-the-art stealth warships or submarines may be due for upgrading or replacement by 2030. What matters is the awareness that one should look beyond the immediate neighbourhood to factor in other players who can expect to trail their coats off one’s doorstep, in years to come.
Be that as it may, what is intriguing is the Chinese mindset that seeks to sweep aside and explain away regional concerns about its unilaterally declared ADIZ: Air traffic has not been disrupted (true), it is within China’s sovereign rights to do so (true), and other nations have done so too (true).
It is not so much the rhetoric, but more the intellectual intransigence in being able or willing to see the other side’s point of view and bulldozing forth with one’s perspective, that points to the kind of future we can expect when the Red tide flows south.
We can look further north than we are already used to, or we can sit tight and be totally blase about regional geo-politics — only to wake up in 2030 to realise that the Singapore coastline pre-World War II was better defended against warships than the city in the garden we are building together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Boey is a former defence correspondent and keeps a blog on Singapore’s defence. This article is based on a post at kementah.blogspot.sg
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