China’s island building project protects vital oil supplies

World Review – October 30, 2014.

As denoted by the range circles in the illustration below, Chinese airbases in the South China Sea provide the ability to patrol the entire area, with anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Contained within that area are shipping lanes used by oil tankers quenching China’s ever-increasing thirst for Middle East oil.

Since this article was originally published, Russia & India began a rearmament/training program for Vietnam with Russia providing them submarines. The recent incident with the US Navy sea drone, was near Scarborough Shoal.

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BEIJING’S land reclamation project in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Archipelago, bringing barely submerged islets above the surface, is a primarily defensive rather than offensive enterprise, says freelance writer Kevin Brent.

China has initiated recovery work on islets of the Gaven, Johnson South and Cuateron Reefs in the Spratlys. It has used dredged materials from cutting shipping channels to bring the land above the surface of the water and expand its size. The work has mirrored its efforts in the Paracel Islands, which it seized from Vietnam in 1974.

The Spratlys are believed to have rich natural resources and are close to fishing grounds and major shipping lanes.

The dispute over their ownership involves Vietnam – which holds several islands – China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. All claim the whole or some of the territory.

Western defense expert commentary on Chinese intentions in the Spratlys has drawn two conclusions:

  • Beijing seeks to project power and hegemony by the enlargement of China’s West Pacific footprint. It is desperate to add sources of oil and natural gas entirely under total Chinese control.
  • The Chinese economy has an increasingly voracious appetite for natural resources and Beijing will exploit any that it can obtain. It views dependency on foreign energy sources as a national security issue.

The strictly military aspect to its efforts in the islands – named after 19th Century British explorer Richard Spratly – is where conclusions, by even the best defense experts, become murky and confused over exactly what is Beijing’s logic behind seizing them and beginning land reclamation.

United States and allied land-based aircraft and carrier battle groups would make short work of eliminating any offensive military value the Spratlys would hold for China.

This could be accomplished without even landing troops to seize the territory, as was done by the ‘island hopping’ strategy of the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War. Japanese air and naval bases were neutered of any offensive potential by aerial and naval bombardment; and their garrisons left to ‘wither on the vine’.

In that light, there is no practical military logic to Beijing making the Spratlys – known as the Nansha Islands in China – a staging area for strategic offensive operations. Beijing would first have to negate the certainty of US armed intervention.

The only logical purpose for military development of the Spratlys is naval and air defense of commercial shipping to and from China. This particularly applies to tankers bringing Middle East oil to an energy-needy economy; in wartime they would supply thirsty naval and air forces and China’s numerous mechanized infantry and armored divisions.

China is simply extending a maritime defense footprint in the South China Sea, similar to that employed by Allied naval and air forces against German U-boats. The Allies achieved that by establishing bases around the north and central Atlantic for long-range maritime patrol aircraft conducting anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

Chinese ASW aircraft deployed from the Spratlys, Paracels and Hainan Island would provide contiguous ASW and anti-surface warfare coverage from Taiwan to the Malacca Straits to protect wartime convoys from submarine attacks.

However, this defensive posture still does not negate US military intervention if the war being fought by Beijing is against America and her allies. China simply does not have the battle fleet needed to take on and defeat US Navy carrier battle groups anywhere in the Pacific.

The only logical answer is that China anticipates fighting a naval enemy that has a potent submarine force, but few or no aircraft carriers; a surface fleet comparable to, or smaller than China’s; and an enemy with whom going to war would not trigger US military intervention.

The only major naval powers in Asia which match that description are Russia and India.

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