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Advanced Naval Military Tech And China's Blue Water Challenge

Politics / GeoPolitics Mar 29, 2014 - 05:39 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


The BRICs and the West

The possibly sanctions-frozen sale by France to Russia of two high tech Mistral-class “invasion platform” fighting ships enabling simultaneous military electronic and physical assault, and regional subversion and sabotage by helicopter-dropped special forces in the attack region exhibits one key dilemma for political deciders.

First be sure you know who your friends are.

Russian military and diplomatic officials are openly mocking European sanctions imposed on them over Crimea. They point out that the Mistral-class ship sales were officially hailed, previously by the French, as a signal for the complete and final end to the Cold War. A Russian military specialist cited by 'New York Times' and other US media claimed that if Russia had possessed these ships in 2008, the Russian military invasion of northern Georgia and total defeat of Georgia's ragtag armed forces “would have taken 40 minutes not 40 hours”.

After dramatically increasing its naval and other military expenditure for more than 20 years at double-digit annual percentage rates, from 2010 China is raising it only by about 7.5 percent a year, but this reduction has also been driven by a change of military strategic focus.

Called China's leading strategic intellectual, and advocate of the “Blue water navy concept” Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, argues for the creation of overseas Chinese military bases, starting in the Indian Ocean and SE Asia's “blue water” seas. He asserts that “it is wrong for us to believe that we have no right to set up bases abroad.” He argues this is a vital need not to fight terrorism or piracy, but to counter the ability of other major powers to block China’s trade routes.

This is the greatest threat as perceived and defined by China.

China's real and potential opposing major powers do not only include the US, Japan and European states, but also other BRICs - especially India and Russia. China has been acquiring naval facilities at crucial choke-points in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests, but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region, reflecting the Chinese aspiration to expand its influence and ultimately dominate the military strategic environment of the Indian Ocean. China’s growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean region is a response to perceived vulnerability, also including vulnerability to India's growing naval presence in the Ocean. A Chinese PLA Navy memorandum cited by in January 2010 but subsequently removed from the site said that: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians…We are taking (potential future) armed conflicts in the region into account”.

Oil and Maritime Trade

In the Chinese case, and also for its rival major powers with a strategic presence and interest in world trade routes, the control and protection of oil trade routes and “chokepoints” is a recurring theme. For China, this strategic need is seen as vital.

Source: Harsh V. Pant, March 2010

Chinese naval military strategists utilise the term String of Pearls for the zone of largest, shortest-term interest for China gaining effective control or at minimum, naval-based rapid reaction capability.
This Chinese “string of pearls” strategy sets an ongoing program of naval base building and diplomatic ties and includes the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma, electronic intelligence gathering facilities in the Bay of Bengal, construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand in a JV with Thailand, and a military agreement with Cambodia, among other key elements. Plenty of claimed-but-denied “dual use” projects and programs are cited by specialist journalists and analysts, for example concerning Chinese “militarized commercial” sea port development and coastal projects in Burma and Sri Lanka – and particularly Chinese shipping projects with Malaysia.

The Malaysia focus is rationalized by almost 80 percent of China’s oil passing through the Straits of Malacca, but Malaysian-Chinese relations are a major focus for the US and Japan, thwarting Chinese military strategic offers to Malaysia. Already, the headline theme of “Where is Flight MH370?” has been given naval security-related answers by Japanese author Yoichi Shimatsu, for example and by NYC investigative journalist Erik Rush.

Both authors basically link the tragedy to alternating rivalry and cooperation in US-Chinese military technology, and derived geopolitical cooperation-and-rivalry, but the high ground strategic need seen by China, of large area maritime dominance sets the high ground. China is more than simply reluctant to rely on US naval power for unhindered access to oil and gas shipping routes; it has moved to build up its naval power at choke points all along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to China.

Diplomatic and Military
As clearly shown by French officials trying to ignore the problem of Mistral-class carriers as sanctions against Putin's Russia are fitfully extended from diplomatic and political, to economic and strategic, the potential for cooperation, even at arms-length, morphing to war maneuvers which can go wrong and result in hostilities in an eyeblink, is exposed. From cyberwar to missile war, can be leaped in seconds.

Especially in the huge maritime area focused by China's Blue Water Navy concept, the risks of conflict-by-error are judged to be high and rising by strategic analysts and historians such as the UK Kings College defense studies expert, Dr Harsh V. Pant. Particular foci for tepid cooperation morphing to outright armed naval conflict are cited by him as including standoffs and tests of will between the navies of China and Japan, China and Vietnam, China and Malaysia and possibly the most rapidly risking risk, of conflict between the Indian navy and China's PLA Navy.

To be sure, this in no way excludes the US, which for historical, as much as economic strategic reasons maintains large-scale naval military presence in the region, especially the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Strategic analysts suggest that Pakistan, both onshore and offshore, is a particularly important potential flashpoint for Chinese-US strategic rivalry.

The unfolding paradigm for China's naval military expansion across several million square kilometres of the world's oceans and seas, can be called “classic” due to it reproducing the same historical process applied first by the European maritime powers, then by the US. Still today, most of Chinese naval facilities in the Indian Ocean are dual use in nature, for example commercial container shipping ports able to be “militarized”, or already being given dual use potential. This process changes the game plan, due to it being difficult to judge at what point in time a specific sea port mutated from majority civil use, to majority military use. To be sure, measures for confusing satellite and aerial or ground-based spying are highly developed – as clearly shown by the ongoing case of “Where is Flight MH370?” and today, where is the debris from its “accidental or willed crash into the Indian Ocean?”.

Dual-use civil-military naval weapons and tactics have made massive strides in recent decades, for example the utilization of “lost and abandoned” standard 40-foot shipping containers, as military electronic decoys and monitoring ordnance, able to be remote commanded to pass into offensive mode launching embarked torpedoes and mines. Normal commercial loss rates of these containers which can hold anything from sports cars and champagne to toxic chemicals and nuclear wastes, are a little-remarked but major phenomenon. In January 2014 alone, only in the NW French province of Bretagne, some 517 standard containers were lost, due to rough seas, high winds and flooding in coastal waters. No precise count of world total lost and abandoned containers is available. Decoy containers packed with naval undersea electronic equipment are therefore “lost” wherever needed, especially in heavily used shipping lanes, such as the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Analysts today suggest that China's previously disguised, civil-emphasis maritime expansion program and projects from the Persian Gulf to China have reached a tipping point. Together with its expansive land and air weapons military budget and its accelerated global search for energy, minerals and other natural resources, China now has one of the world’s largest merchant fleets with a port, transport, and ship-building infrastructures to match. Any of these can be militarized as and when needed.

The needed tipping point is a major North-South or East-West geopolitical standoff and test of wills.

China and India are very closely monitoring the downsized and shrunken “West”, essentially only the US and Europe with an ambiguous Japan in tow, in its standoff with Russia over the Ukraine-Crimea issue. What they will conclude if the West fails not only to effectively sanction Russia, but also continues delivering sophisticated military naval technology, such as the French fighting ships to Russia, is that their own naval military expansion is urgent and necessary.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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