Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thinking About China -- Military Moves

South China Sea

Several days ago, an American Navy ship traveled through some now-contested areas of the South China Sea.  This was a deliberate voyage, and, for it, the American ambassador was called into a high government office in Beijing and given a dressing down for venturing into Chinese territory.

In fact, China has been pushing the issue for almost two years by dredging ocean sands and dumping the proceeds on formerly submerged islets and reefs to make new islands.

According to UN rules, "low tide elevations" like reefs are entitled to 500-meter safety zones.  Land masses -- which China calls its new man-made islands -- cannot be approached by sea within 12 miles without the permission of the countries to which they belong.  But islands like the newly created ones don't meet the UN definition of national territories.

At least three of China's newly constructed islands include airfields suitable for military craft, and some are home to military equipment.  One island is estimated to be larger than 1,000 football fields.  (A "football field" is a unique American standard of measurement.) 

China appears to be asserting military dominance in the South China Sea, which also is abutted by Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  China claims its new islands, part of the Spratly Islands, have been Chinese territory for 2,000 years and that the island-building project is for peaceful and scientific purposes, which may include oil and gas to be harvested by ocean drilling.

One guess is that this is a strategic move -- to make the South China Sea safe for Chinese nuclear submarines, which could carry second-strike nuclear warheads in the event of a nuclear attack on the Chinese mainland.  (Maybe the Chinese are little bit paranoid; it is difficult to imagine ANY country planning a nuclear strike on China.)

The whole matter is complicated by the fact that the South China Sea is home to maritime shipping routes that move trillions of dollars of cargo each year.  China professes to have no plans to interrupt shipping.   

The US warship's pass through the South China Sea was part of an ongoing policy to assure the freedom of navigation on the open seas. In recent years, the US has challenged maritime claims by other countries, including India, Taiwan and even Denmark. 

But China is a little different, putting its military power on the line and daring confrontation. The Phillipines and Vietnam already are complaining about Chinese overreach.  The potential for a skirmish, or something worse, may be growing.  

Military Parade

Last month, Beijing hosted its first big military parade since 2009, when it celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The September parade marked 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II, when the Chinese rid themselves of the hated Japanese occupation.  

Virtually all of Beijing was shut down, with most cars off the roads and many people confined to their houses.   Every television station covered the event, which was held in Tianenman Square.

The numbers of marchers and quantities of armaments on display were remarkable:  12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware and squadrons of fighter planes and helicopters.  Some photos:

President Xi Jinping
In his address to the nation, President Xi Jinping (whose presumably 10-year term began in 2013), stressed China's peaceful intentions and pledged to slash troop numbers.

Reporters found a University of Hong Kong professor who doubted Xi's word.  
"All this new equipment -- fighter jets, carrier killing missiles, drones -- give China force projection capability. If all you need is regional defense you don't need all this," the professor said.  "It signals China's ambition to be a global military force."

Doves, signalling peace, were released at the end of the celebration. 

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