Pushing and Shoving in the South China Sea

Warships pushing and shoving in the South China Sea might be nothing to worry about in the short term, but what implications do such incidents have for the area, including countries further abroad such as Australia?

Aggressive naval manoeuvring between the warships of nations who don’t like each other is nothing new. A standard tactic is to deliberately plot a collision course, and then, if you’re the aggressor, change speed or course by a few knots or degrees and just miss your opponent. Crossing his bow then dumping garbage over the stern of your ship so he has to steam through it is another one.

This essay appears in the November issue of Quadrant.
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These doings might seem silly but they have a method in their madness. Forcing your opponent to back down is pushing him onto the back foot, as boxers say. Warfare is won by aggression, something warriors learn in the Principles of War. And being a successful aggressor heightens morale on your side, another imperative if you want to win.

The recent shoving between the US destroyer Decatur and the Chinese Luyang-class destroyer Lanzhou was not nearly as fraught as it might have been. These manoeuvres can quickly escalate—if both nations want them to—to fire-control radars “lighting up” their target; missiles and guns being trained towards the potential enemy, and in the more physical sense, one vessel refusing to back down from contact. Having your ship “T-boned” might involve costly damage, injuries, even loss of life, but it shows your ship, and by implication your nation, is not in a mood to back down.

It needs to be understood, though, that such aggressive manoeuvring is almost always done with the full knowledge of the senior command of the navies involved, and from there the political structure above them.

“War is the continuation of politics by other means” was Carl von Clausewitz’s most famous dictum. The great soldier was writing in the times of Napoleon, who he was fighting, but his thoughts remain relevant. The Chinese may not be engaging in warfare in the South China Sea, but they are certainly pushing forward their point of view—which is that they will take what they materially can in such areas.

Chinese aggression in the Spratlies and the Paracels has been going on for decades. But the Chinese may not even see themselves as being overly antagonistic. They may well see Western “imperial powers” such as Britain, France and the US as having been empire-builders for hundreds of years, so what’s wrong with a bit of Chinese forward power where they can exert it?

Indeed, using military platforms such as aircraft and ships to assert Chinese rights is the steel fist inside the velvet glove. Chinese “soft power” has been on the march since the middle of the twentieth century. China is not just building islands, claiming others, and using its aircraft and ships aggressively. Helping Timor with the provision of new “free” buildings is part of the effort. The increase in Chinese shopkeepers in the Pacific nations is another aspect. How much assistance the recipient nations might actually get, how much they are expected to pay in kind, and how much strategy is behind such movements, is shrouded in the mist that has always surrounded the Chinese dragon.

But it is certain that China is on the rise. The country’s strategists don’t see the world as immutable. They don’t regard the West as the obvious leader. President Obama said in Australia in 2011, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” but the Chinese may not agree. Words not backed up with actions are hollow.

Western naval passage through the Taiwan Strait is another area where pushing and shoving is but a visible part of diplomatic manoeuvrings. China routinely insists that Taiwan is a rebel state and often asserts it will do something about taking it back one day. Whether it will do so is doubtful. Then again, would the West fight on behalf of Taiwan? Its small force of twenty-four surface destroyers and frigates—big warships and smaller vessels, all missile-equipped—is capable, but would be quickly overwhelmed. But it’s less about aiding a small friend than containing a growing possible enemy—so perhaps.

Where does all this leave Australia? Participation in such movements through the Taiwan Straits is a good indicator. The Royal Australian Navy has routinely made that voyage, including earlier this year. Other countries assert their right to free passage: Britain for example with HMS Albion in September. It’s about sending a signal: we can come this way, and we are strong; just look at how sophisticated and powerful our warships are. It’s about posturing and showing your muscles, to deter the enemy from actually fighting in the metaphorical schoolyard, just as much as it’s about swinging a few slow punches that miss, and maybe just shoving him in the chest a bit.

Then again, for more sophisticated observers, the fact that a warship caused another to change course, or came within twenty metres of collision, in fact conceals more than it reveals. We as observers don’t know what the commander’s instructions were. We don’t know if he was told to “scrape the paint”, or cause a few dents, or “insult” the possible enemy. Was that word enemy used, or was it antagonist? We won’t be told: a bland statement will tell us that “a vessel of X Navy came within metres of collision with a vessel of Y Navy” and that “such aggression will not be tolerated”. And so on.

Whether the vessels involved have the capability to do more is of prime importance. If a Chinese naval destroyer shows every indication of readying its missiles, are those weapons actually inside the launch tubes? Are those guns swinging around and pointing menacingly actually loaded?

But it takes much more than paint and presence to provide a threat, and that is where the Chinese are limited. China has routinely limited itself since the Second World War to maintaining localised forces, concentrating more on defence than offence. Despite some excursions into conflict areas such as Vietnam, these forces remain what is known in defence circles as “continental” rather than “expeditionary”.

There is an interesting contrast between Australia and China. Our warships are routinely found in China’s area of interest. So are Britain’s, and leading the West is the US: all three navies thousands of kilometres away from their homelands. We can’t say the same of Chinese presence in ours. Imagine the situation if China possessed an aircraft carrier battle group which routinely sailed the Pacific, and came within only a few hundred nautical miles of the US coastline, conducted flying operations, missile launches, night flying and anti-submarine exercises.

China has no ability to do this. But the US does. It has numerous carrier battle groups, each capable of delivering massive, precisely targeted munitions. These battle groups have “presence”: the ability to stay in an area almost indefinitely. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have that in spades. The Chinese have no such ability.

So is China a threat? Yes, it is. It likely wants to be the equivalent of the old USSR: a massive blue-water—as opposed to coastal brown-water—naval force backed up by land-based long-range air power, with a small carrier group. Imagine that force traversing the water corridors of the Pacific. Imagine China’s ambition at long range. Think of the changes they could make to world trade by a blockade of trade routes, and what their ability just to hinder shipping would do to foreign economies.

So would a blue-water China be a bad thing? Critics of the US of course would argue that there is no difference between one imperial power and the next. However, I think there is. Imperial Britain did a lot of good for the world, along with some lesser bad. The US’s nuclear umbrella has kept the world from a Cold War suddenly becoming hot for many decades. Those who never knew the Cold War don’t know that there was, and is, immense good in a world of liberal democratic free-thinking government. If you don’t agree, try living in a world where free thinking is repressed, not by crowds of agitators turning up to your talk by Bettina Arndt and shutting it down, but by free-thinkers being taken away in the night and sent off to a gulag that exists as a ferociously hard prison and not as a catchword.

But down on the ground, or rather, on the water, such lofty thinking is well above the heads of the sailors who ready the missiles. They often don’t know the full intentions of their commanders. Does it take just one finger on a trigger to hurl two countries into war? Not really, if there’s nothing in the launchers, and tempers aren’t up, as opposed to careful calculations and pretend insults. And we should not forget that there is little likelihood of Chinese home audiences becoming outraged as they see their ships humiliated or bettered in sending insults. The Chinese government controls what is seen and heard through electronic media.

Is it all posture? The Chinese have shown little ability to use really good tactical power, operating the full suite of their ships’ and aircraft’s weaponry in all sorts of weather, and at night. Do their ships function in bad weather; in fact do their sailors, or are they all seasick? Are in fact their ships barely afloat, because they leak badly due to constant impact with wharves, or because they weren’t made properly, which would be depressing indeed for their operators? Speaking of which, are their sailors all miserable, and just want to get back to the mainland to take up a life of capitalist enterprise in that weird situation China has set up? Sad soldiers don’t fight well.

Chinese capability goes further than just posturing with some admittedly nice-looking modern stealthy ships. A capable navy would routinely fire off missiles, and the missiles would actually launch, rather than hang on their rails, misfire, fail to detonate when they arrive, or go wildly off target. Their guns would shoot on demand, and their gunners would hit their targets nine times out of ten. The Chinese are reluctant to let such insights into their capabilities go on display.

I am reminded of spending time on a warship of a nation which must remain unnamed. In company with Australian warships, a series of exercises had been organised: gun firing; replenishment at sea; man overboard recovery, and so on. Both navies had four ships present. In a series of embarrassing blunders, the foreign nation’s ships missed targets, damaged their own vessels, and in one spectacular mistake, shot at the tow aircraft in an anti-air exercise, rather than the target it was towing. The Chinese naval component of its army is much more proficient than that, but the point is that navies are not just warships and the abilities to reach a patch of water.

In the end, the Chinese navy is no match for the combined forces of the West, or just the US Navy alone. China possesses too many ships: among them thirty-three destroyers, fifty frigates, forty-two corvettes, 109 missile boats and ninety-four submarine chasers. It would do better to decide exactly what it wants its naval force to do, and concentrate on becoming more sophisticated. It has sixty-eight submarines, but they are a varied fleet, with some oddities in overall purpose. And the single Chinese aircraft carrier is still in an embryonic state, and is only slowly plodding along the avenue of developed capability.

But China is carefully expanding its naval presence and its accepted waters, as other nations do little to counter its salami tactics. Slice by slice it is building its territory. Aggressive manoeuvring by its warships is part of that effort.

The most recent book by Dr Tom Lewis OAM is The Empire Strikes South, which outlines Japan’s air attacks across northern Australia in the Second World War. His article “The Japanese Airmen Who Attacked Australia’s North” appeared in the June issue.

3 thoughts on “Pushing and Shoving in the South China Sea

  • en passant says:

    Churchill was asked what it would take for him to make peace with Hitler. His answer was “Victory”.
    General Colin Powell (for whom I have respect) stated that no country should ever become involved in any war unless it had an exit strategy. This view was a result of his experience in Vietnam as the USA could not define the conditions for victory (even though they were actually close to breaking the North Vietnamese will to fight on).
    The problem for the Chinese is that they cannot have an exit strategy because that would mean losing face (a concept not well understood in the West).
    They Chinese will push until they trigger a war, even if that is not their intention.

  • canhippi says:

    The Chinese are already at war

    Trump went to war with them over unfair trade, currency manipulation and patent theft (Trumps winning).
    Trump went to war with them over their dominance in short range nuclear missiles. Trump dumped the treaty limiting their use and deployment. He then nuclear armed his cruise missiles. With those actions the strategic balance changed and the Chinese could now never win a war against the west.

    Watch Chinese overtures for peaceful co existence with the US and all other countries.

    Trump has won the 2nd Cold War.

    Oh and Russia is totally stuffed… economically again. It’s gas and oil sales to the west are declining financially and in volume. It exports little else.

    The recent incident in the Ukraine is at the feet of the ukranian president who faces an election.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Australia’s own position should be to emphatically remind China and the world that the islands to our north are our responsibility and thus sphere of influence due to the League of Nations decree following WWI – and to eject the Chinese embassy for claiming otherwise, and tell them not to come back until they apologise.
    The idea that we have to kowtow to China is absurd. Our sales to them are merely one stage in the journey of our produce: the Chinese economy merely provides cheap goods to the USA. If the Chinese ‘threaten’ to cease to be the hired help, they are easily replaced.

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