The Nanning, bearing hull number 162, was photographed joining Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Chaganhu and Type 071 amphibious dock landing ship Qilianshan of the PLA Southern Theatre Command to carry out a drill in disputed waters that are also claimed by five other nations.
“After gaining combat capabilities, the South China Sea-based Nanning will play an important role in safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, national sovereignty and development interests,” the state-run Global Times said.
The Nanning was reportedly commissioned in April at Zhanjiang port in Guangdong province and is the third of its class to enter service in 2021, following the Suzhou and the Huainan, bringing the number of Type 052D vessels in service to 18.
Meanwhile, two other ships have been photographed finishing sea trials, suggesting they will be soon delivered to the Chinese navy.
Type 052D – or Luyang III-class as Nato calls it – was designed to match the US Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. It is equipped with advanced radars and electronics comparable to the US Aegis system, as well as 64-cell vertical missile launchers. The first ship of its class was commissioned in 2014 and in August 2020 the 25th Type 052D was launched.
Nanning belongs to the upgraded version of the 7,500-tonne guided-missile destroyer, the PLAN’s second-largest destroyer after the Type 055.
Sometimes also referred to as Type 052DL, the variant has an extended rear helicopter flight deck and a new radar to improve its anti-submarine and anti-stealth capabilities.
Besides Type 052D, the PLA navy has also planned for at least eight type 055 destroyers – two commissioned and six under construction. This year, it is expected to have at least three more delivered.
So rapid is the Chinese navy’s expansion, it is running out of names for its new warships.
According to PLAN ship-naming rules, Type 052D and Type 055 vessels should be named after big cities, such as provincial capitals. However, Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, was the last name available. Future ships will have to be named after smaller cities.
The Chinese military has deployed extra surveillance forces in the air and waters near a disputed South China Sea archipelago as tensions rise between Beijing and its Southeast Asia neighbours.
Citing satellite images provided by Maxar, USNI, a US military news website, reported on Friday that a Type-815G spy ship was spotted at a military base at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands chain.
A Chinese navy Y-8Q maritime patrol aircraft and a KJ-500 airborne early warning and control plane were also spotted on the reef’s airfield, the report said.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the Type-815G was an elusive ship, and its main task was to collect critical intelligence on foreign military activities.
“Recently there’s been an uptick in foreign military activities, especially naval movements by US and allied forces, in the South China Sea. So I’ll surmise the ship is observing how these US and allied navies operate together,” he said.
The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, up from 65 in April, according to the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, which monitors military activity in the region.
The think tank said that when the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur transited the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane flew over the South China Sea.
The Pentagon released the satellite images of the Chinese ship and aircraft on Wednesday, the same day that an advisory body to the Pentagon made recommendations for improving US strategy to deal with China.
The recommendations, which were not made public, served as a new directive for the Pentagon to focus on China, and are aimed at strengthening cooperation with US allies, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, but there are overlapping claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, leading to confrontations over the disputed waters.
Even though the US is not a claimant, it has sent military vessels and aircraft there for what it calls freedom of navigation operations. Beijing says such operations violate its sovereignty and create tensions, but the US says China’s military installations in the region are the major threats to security.
Tensions between China and Philippines and Malaysia are running high with Manila protesting against Beijing after more than 200 fishing vessels massed at Whitsun Reef – a move China described as normal.
The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, maintaining a constant presence over the disputed waters, a Beijing-based think tank said.
The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said in a monthly summary on Thursday that there was a slight month-on-month rise in US reconnaissance flight operations near China’s coast in May, from 65 in April.
But it said the number was a “huge increase compared with the corresponding period last year, which was only 35.”
The think tank previously reported record US spy plane operations over the disputed sea, numbering 70 in January and 75 in February. It said the US Navy operated 57 of the 72 sorties in May, and the US Air Force the remainder.
Military commentator and former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) instructor Song Zhongping said reconnaissance flights from the US over the South China Sea were becoming more normal.
“The PLA’s military capabilities are constantly improving, and the US military is increasingly worried,” he said. “On the other hand, the US military is also preparing for combat. Therefore, it has to increase reconnaissance against the PLA.
“This reminds us that we need to be prepared for military confrontations against the United States.”
When the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur was transiting the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane were flying over the South China Sea, said the think tank, which monitors military activity in the region. It said the aircraft were “probably providing the intelligence support for the warship.”
Beijing called the transit a “provocation” and said it sent “wrong signals” to supporters of Taiwan independence.
It said such operations had increased by more than 20% for US warships and 40% for planes in and around waters claimed by China, compared with the same period last year under the Donald Trump administration.
As the world’s largest military, needing hundreds of thousands of new recruits each year, the People’s Liberation Army has been affected by China’s wider fertility and ageing issues, and tried to counter them.
The gathering pace of the PLA’s modernisation has given its instructors and recruiters the challenge of how to train a newer breed of soldier, experts said.
“Military instructors found the strict and dogmatic training modes applied in the last century didn’t work for the more individual young soldiers born in the 21st century,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank.
“Some even dared to butt against and challenge superiors when they were not happy. The military was forced to adjust. Some military instructors tell me they are still muddling through how to take charge of younger generations.”
Rather than only orders and scolding, therapy sessions by professional psychotherapists have been brought in since 2011 to ease stress, according to military mouthpiece The PLA Daily.
That can help middle-aged instructors and senior leaders to better understand the new generations, but also provide data for designing new training modules such as computer war games and virtual reality training, the PLA report said. In the past, the military would leave soldiers’ morale and personal well-being to political commissars.
Physical fitness has been another tough challenge for the PLA since the military shifted its recruitment targets from peasants’ children to rural youth with a higher education level in 2000, when the military stepped up a massive equipment and weapon systems replacement.
To command and operate increasingly advanced and sophisticated weapon systems, the military recruited more than 120,000 college graduates in 2009 – the largest intake since the Communist Party regime was established in 1949. That trend has since been the norm, according to the defence ministry.
The ministry has started to adjust conscription requirements to make sure they could recruit enough qualified college students. For example, since 2014, it has lowered height requirements from 162cm (5 feet, 4 inches) to 160cm for men, and 160cm to 158cm for women, as well as lowering the bar a little for short-sighted and overweight applicants.
After protests by young soldiers against a ban on mobile phones, the army in 2015 lifted the restriction, provided that soldiers installed the army’s anti-spy software that allowed the newly established internet administration centres to closely monitor their activities.
The PLA had an extra round of conscription last year, allowing university graduates who failed to find jobs to enlist.
“To expand sources of troops, the PLA has also started recruiting high-school graduates who are not qualified enough to be admitted to university,” Zhou said.
“The shortage of soldiers is not so critical now, but it’s a reality that more and more highly educated urban children are not interested in serving in the army.”
China’s once-a-decade census, released this month, showed that 12 million babies were born in the past year, the lowest since 1961, during the Great Famine. The decision in 2016 to loosen China’s one-child policy and allow people to have a second child had failed to reverse the country’s falling birth rate.
The census showed China’s 2020 fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman – below the replacement level of 2.1 needed for a stable population.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said that since 1993, many mainland military officials and observers had voiced concerns about the impact of the one-child policy – introduced in 1979 – on the military.
In an open report to the central government in 2012, Professor Liu Mingfu from the PLA National Defence University warned that at least 70% of PLA soldiers were from one-child families, and the figure rose to 80% among combat troops.
“We could find the PLA has recruited more female soldiers in the past decade – a popular approach adopted by developed countries facing a shortage of new blood,” Wong said.
Previous official figures showed women made up 5% of the PLA’s 2 million troops, but Zhou said the proportion had increased to 7%. Women made up 17% of the American military in 2018, according to the US government.
The PLA also set up its first female marine troop, which debuted in the 2017 Zhurihe war game parade.
Ni Lexiong, a military expert in Shanghai, said a greater proportion of women in the military would become a global trend thanks to the development of military technologies.
“Male-dominated troops is an outdated concept, and more highly educated soldiers are required, playing keyboards indoors,” Ni said.
“Modern warfare will focus on artificial intelligence, unmanned aircraft, electronic countermeasures and other confrontations that do not need too much physical strength, allowing more competent women to play a role in the armed forces.”
The Chinese air force has put an upgraded version of one of its most advanced air-defence missile systems to an extreme test in unfamiliar terrain, according to state media.
Observers said the exercise involving the upgraded HQ-9 system was meant to show the hardware at full stretch, as the military presses on with plans to develop a modern combat-ready force.
“[We] want to learn how to protect and maintain the new weapon system under rugged surroundings, as well as to better camouflage it and … try all efforts to fulfil our task,” air force commander Du Tao told state broadcaster CCTV.
During the exercise, a ground-to-air missile brigade of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was deployed 500 km (310 miles) to unfamiliar territory for a simulated confrontation between red and blue armies.
Using the missile system, the brigade knocked down four target drones with four shots, CCTV reported.
The exercises were reportedly conducted with stealth under the joint operations of different combat units, including the air-defence missile battalion and strategic support troops equipped with early-warning radar and electronic surveillance systems.
Special forces played the role of the rival blue army with electromagnetic interference devices to confuse operations for the new missile type, the CCTV report said.
The report did not reveal what type of missile was used or when and where the exercises took place, but Du said the drill aimed to test a new air-defence missile system under dark, cold, sandy and other extreme conditions, indicating the system being tested was likely to have been the upgraded HQ-9B system.
The HQ-9B is a new vertical launch, medium and long-range ground-to-air missile defence system developed for the PLA to intercept airborne targets at ranges of up to 250km. The missile system was deployed to the artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea in 2016. The PLA Navy has deployed the shipborne HHQ-9B to the new Type 052D guided-missile destroyers.
Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said the drill indicated that the air force air-defence combat unit could deploy and operate new weapon systems such as the HQ-9B missiles in unfamiliar terrain at any time.
“Those kinds of long distance deployment and massive joint operation drills are aimed at enhancing the PLA’s manoeuvrability,” Song said. “It’s important to test and operate a new weapon system as soon as possible after its commissioning, which could also beef up combat capability.”
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said all PLA combat units needed to show their full military “mechanisation” capacity. Last year, China’s defence ministry declared that the PLA had achieved the goal of upgrading its weaponry after more than two decades of efforts towards building a modernised military.
“The PLA has completed massive and comprehensive weapon replacement over the past two decades,” Zhou said. “Now all combat troops should reinforce their training and get used to operating all new weapons systems via joint operations between different units.”
As China plans to add more mini-aircraft carriers and assemble at least six carrier strike groups by 2035, it faces the vital task of maintaining the right number of each type of ship.
The Chinese navy has undergone considerable expansion, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimating that it will receive nearly 100 new ships by 2030 to give it a total of about 425 battle-force ships.
Part of the motivation is to catch up with the United States, which has 11 aircraft carriers, outnumbering China by nine, and more than a dozen amphibious assault ships to support its global strategy.
But a military source and observers said Beijing’s strategy would be not just a matter of the number of ships, but ensuring the fleet combinations were well balanced, to avoid bearing a hugely costly fleet.
Previous reports said new naval vessels would include four next-generation aircraft carriers, an unspecified number of next-generation nuclear-powered attack and strategic submarines, as well as the amphibious assault ships and upgraded Type 076 platforms with electromagnetic catapults for fixed-wing aircraft operations – making them more like aircraft carriers.
That is in addition to the six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, raising concerns over whether China will adopt a global strategy like that of the US and even the former Soviet Union, which during the Cold War planned to build more than 200 nuclear submarines to counter the US’ aircraft carriers.
But a military source told the South China Morning Post that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would not follow those templates, and was simply assessing which numbers of surface ships and nuclear submarines would suffice to defend national interests at home and overseas.
“China now has enough conventional surface warships, like the cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, but the numbers of [nuclear-powered] aircraft carriers and submarines need to be increased,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the task of building a well-balanced fleet was the toughest for all the big powers.
He said one of the reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union was its costly nuclear submarine strategy.
“It’s impossible for the PLAN to copy the US navy’s aircraft carrier strategy, too. The US has several huge naval bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Guam base, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and the 7th fleet’s headquarters in Japan’s Yokosuka, enabling it to form several containment arcs to contain a rising China,” Wong said, referring to the so-called island chain strategies that targeted the communist alliance led by the former Soviet Union in Asia during the Cold War.
“Unlike other surface warships, both aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines need specific and dedicated ports for logistic support and maintenance when sailing farther from home waters, but so far China just built its first and only military outpost, in Djibouti [on the Horn of Africa].”
Wong said Beijing had been planning to set up overseas military outposts in Myanmar, Pakistan and other Beijing-friendly African countries since the mid-1990s when China became a net oil importer, but progress was limited almost two decades later.
“Besides ‘China threat’ theory, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Wolf Warrior diplomatic policy should also be blamed, causing many countries to remain suspicious about the ambitions behind Beijing’s naval expansion,” he said.
In an effort to become a real blue-water navy, Beijing adjusted its military policy in 2015, placing more stress on active offshore water defence and open-seas protection.
“In the foreseeable future, both active offshore defence and far-seas protection would carry similar strategic weight in importance, ” Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. “This is surely enabled by growing the PLAN’s blue-water capabilities, not least a more robust aircraft carrier capacity.”
In current peacetime, Koh said, the PLAN might be able to secure continued access to facilities in Beijing-friendly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or even Iran, as well as some other Middle East and East African countries via economic investments, but that would be unsustainable in wartime.
The PLAN has two active conventional aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. A third, with electromagnetic catapults, is expected to be launched this year.
The most likely contingency for the PLA would be a war over Taiwan, given that Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province to be returned by force if necessary. All the giant platforms and the expected near-dozen amphibious assault ships would be expected to take part in any potential conflict over Taiwan.
“We can see both Liaoning and Shandong ships are used as training and ship-borne weapon systems testing platforms, indicating they are still operating like the Soviet aircraft cruisers during World War II,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“The PLAN’s aircraft carriers can’t compete with the offensive USS Nimitz-class aircraft platforms … of course, Beijing’s future defence policy will be clear when the mainland discloses details of the third next-generation carrier.”
Over the next two weeks, US armed forces will crawl through, drive over, fly above and shovel into Alaska’s thawing tundra, training to defend this sparsely populated state from a power whose ambitions increasingly defy geography.
Some 10,000 uniformed service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will participate in the Northern Edge training exercise aimed at countering China, Russia and other potential adversaries that threaten the Arctic frontier and broader Indo-Pacific region.
This comes as Beijing becomes an increasingly active great power competitor as global warming makes resources more accessible, opens new shipping lanes and spurs military jockeying.
“China in the South China Sea continues to make territorial claims that are not recognised by the international community. We see that China’s using a series of abject intimidation, economic, coercion techniques to try and justify their territorial claims,” said Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and the Eleventh Air Force.
“We need to make sure that pattern is not repeated up here in the Arctic,” added Krumm, an Alabama native overseeing Northern Edge.
US Air Force/1st Lt Savanah Bray
Locals say Washington is finally waking up to the strategic importance of Alaska, America’s largest state geographically and least densely populated, too often considered an afterthought by the “Lower 48.”
“Finally you’ve figured out this is an important place,” said Fran Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor and chairwoman from 2011-2021 of the US Arctic Research Commission. “At least the US government has started paying more attention.”
A big wake-up call for Arctic nations Canada, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the US and Russia came in 2018 when China declared itself a “near-Arctic power” despite its location some 930 miles away. Ironically, China was an Arctic power until 1858 when the Qing empire conceded far northern territory to Russia, nine years before the US purchased Alaska, allowing it to join the club.
Few see China making a grab for territory outright. But money, trade, logistics, six research stations, an aggressive icebreaker-building programme, “plausible dual-use” research projects and an explicit long-term Arctic road map have done little to mask Beijing’s ambitions.
Even as China refers to the Arctic as a “global commons,” internal documents suggest a more strategic outlook, analysts said, as Chinese scholars posit that controlling the region would afford Beijing a “three continents and two oceans’ geographical advantage” over the Northern Hemisphere. In March, Beijing pledged to add a “Polar Silk Road” to its signature global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative.
“China seeks to become a ‘polar great power’ but downplays this goal publicly,” the Brookings Institution said in a report last month.
Xinhua/Wu Yue via Getty Images
A 2018 Chinese white paper outlined three objectives: to understand, protect and develop the Arctic, a region where the attraction is evident. Access to its natural resources could help power China’s economy. And rapidly melting ice from Alaska to Norway could halve freighter voyages to Europe and reduce vulnerability, underscored by the Suez Canal’s closure in March after a vessel ran aground.
“They’re very good at driving a long-term strategy,” said Cameron Carlson, founding director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “China’s been very astute, whether in Alaska or other parts of the Arctic, very good about inserting themselves.”
That includes embedding itself in major Arctic organisations, sending 33 high-level officials to the region since 2000, using scientific exploration to gain a foothold and mapping the seabed with its home-grown Xuelong 2 icebreaker.
“They conduct oceanographic research for climate change and, I suspect, undersea warfare,” said James Kraska, maritime law professor at the US Naval War College.
On other fronts, China has sought control over infrastructure with potential military use, making plays to develop a large regional port and acquire a submarine base in Sweden; buy an old naval base and three airports in Greenland; and acquire 250 square kilometres (96.5 square miles) in Iceland for an airstrip and golf course “in an area where golf cannot be played,” Brookings said.
And in a now standard playbook, Beijing has used economic muscle to gain political leverage, ploughing billions into smaller Arctic nations and employing divide-and-conquer tactics – as seen, analysts said, when investments in Greenland fanned local hopes of independence from Denmark.
“Once they have commercial, diplomatic and under-the-table payments, they build constituencies,” said Walter Skya, Asian studies director at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “You have to hand it to them, they are persistent.”
HEIKO JUNGE/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
Beijing’s growing confidence and ambition befits its huge economy and global importance, Skya said. “But it tends to overreach, like a fat man at a buffet,” he added. “And over time, people don’t say ‘these Chinese are wonderful.’ Resentment tends to build up.”
China is hardly alone in attempting blatant land grabs, however. In 2019, then US president Donald Trump rather bizarrely offer to “buy” Greenland, a source of rare earth minerals used in everything from jet fighters to cellphone batteries, only to cancel a trip to Denmark in a huff after being rebuffed.
China’s own bid to exploit the island’s rich deposits were set back when a pro-environment party secured a plurality in parliament last month, pledging to halt mining.
Beijing is in many ways only doing what Western powers have long done, securing resources and trading routes for its population, said Ulmer, adding that demonising China could undermine US interests. “They’re people rich and resource poor,” she said. “The less the US wants to do with China, the more that China will do it with Russia.”
The heart of the Northern Edge exercise is at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Nearly a metre of snow and dense pine trees line the road leading from Anchorage into the Chugach Mountains above the base.
“This big base is out of the range of our adversaries,” said Laura Sturdevant, an Alaska World Affairs Council board member and former US Air Force intelligence officer, pointing out Elmendorf-Richardson’s criss-crossing runways as a bald eagle soared overhead. “China, Russia, the US – Alaska is in the middle of all of it.”
Held every two years – with a complementary Arctic Edge exercise in alternate years – the May 3-14 Northern Edge includes up to 300 aircraft and personnel from around the Pacific. Details have not been released. But past scenarios – some including trained dolphins to help detect underwater intruders – sought to encourage role players to think creatively when confronting extreme weather, severed communications, nonexistent airstrips and limited cooperation between insular military branches.
US Navy/MCS3 Erik Melgar
Increasingly, the Pentagon has also leaned on unmanned technology to “patrol” Alaska’s vast reaches, including over-the-horizon polar radar, low-earth orbit satellites and fixed seabed surveillance.
Also on its radar: how to defend against quasi-civilian “grey zone” tactics seen, for example, in China’s use of the coastguard and fishing fleets to harass and deter other nations who dispute its South China Sea claims, seen in March on the Philippines’ Whitsun Reef.
“The US absolutely will not and could not use our fishing fleets to impede on other countries in their economic zones. We would not do that. Yet we see China do it,” said Krumm. “What we don’t want is that mentality to come up here to the Arctic.”
Also worrying Washington is the spectre of Beijing and Moscow joining forces. While the two have a checkered history, their interests align in opposing democratic, human rights, market economic and rule of law values that threaten autocratic systems.
Russia has been President Xi Jinping’s most frequent foreign destination, and China’s share of Russian foreign trade rose to over 18% in 2020 from 10% in 2013.
Russia’s reliance on Chinese funding for its Arctic infrastructure projects – including the port in Zarubino, a deep water port at Arkhangelsk and the Yamal LNG project – increased significantly after Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea curtailed Western financing.
The two have also held joint military exercises in the Barents and North seas and eastern Siberia, and Moscow has stepped up sales of fighter jets, missile systems and an early warning anti-missile system to China. And in December, they flew joint bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea.
That said, significant fissures exist. China has advocated more multilateral control over the Arctic befitting its “near-Arctic” status while Russia, with the longest Arctic coastline and effective control over sea routes, considers itself the “Arctic superpower.”
Vadim SavitskyTASS via Getty Images
Critics say the US is slowly waking up as American fishermen complain of aggressive Russian sorties over the Bering Sea, which at one point narrows to just 55 miles between the Alaskan and Russian coasts.
Last year, US jets scrambled 14 times to counter Russian aircraft testing their defences, double the normal levels, said Krumm, and the most in nearly a decade.
America’s two Cold War-era icebreakers – compared with nearly four dozen for Russia, nine of which are nuclear – keep breaking down or catching fire; the Arctic was only recently incorporated into strategic planning; and the Pentagon still lacks a central Arctic coordinating office, analysts say.
Last year, US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz called the situation “a woefully unacceptable level of presence in an area where we must be a leading force”.
So far, the Biden administration has largely maintained Trump’s Arctic policy, which last June called for three heavy icebreakers by 2029, four support bases and more focus on impeding China’s Arctic ambitions.
“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarisation and competing territorial claims?” then secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the non-military Arctic Council in 2019, warning Russia and China against “aggressive” action.
One change is likely to be more focus on environmental issues, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken set to visit the next Arctic Council ministerial in Iceland on May 19-20.
US Coast Guard/PO1 Cynthia Oldham
To better handle another Exxon Valdez-type oil spill, vessel collision or other mishap, analysts have recommended closer US integration with allies to check Arctic militarisation and the construction of a northern deep water port around Nome, Alaska. Currently the closest strategic US port is 1,300 miles away.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of shipping, as much as 2,000 ships a year,” said Bill Walker, a lawyer and a former Alaska governor. “We need a response capability when the worst happens.”
Analysts also recommend that Washington focus on driving a wedge between Russia and China.
“China is not an Arctic nation, and it is in the US interest to limit China’s influence,” the Centre for a New American Security said in a recent report, citing the risk of an arms race. “There is no time to waste.”
Washington’s slow start compares with Moscow’s chest thumping. In recent years, it has strengthened airfields and restored Cold War-era Arctic military posts, including one on Wrangel Island a few hundred miles from Alaska’s coast, and last year drove its new nuclear-powered icebreaker to the North Pole.
One thing most agree on: as the economic and military stakes rise, the jockeying will only intensify.
“Alaska’s strategic importance is indisputable,” said Major Meg Harper of the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the US Northern Command. “The escalation of Russian activity and Chinese ambitions in the region demonstrates the strategic importance of the Arctic. Competition will only increase.”
That facility houses between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese navy personnel, according to various reports. About 12 km away, the US’s Camp Lemonnier military base houses 3,400 personnel.
Analysts say that while the US has always welcomed China’s support for UN peacekeeping operations and anti-piracy efforts in Africa, it is concerned China plans to expand its rights to set up bases, using them to extend its military reach and grow arms sales to African countries.
Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said whether in Africa or the Arctic, the US did not want to see a challenger upset its dominant global military presence.
“Chinese participating in peacekeeping missions may not turn too many heads at the Pentagon, but China’s Djibouti base has military capabilities that extend far beyond the logistical needs of any peace or humanitarian mission,” Patey said.
US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, leader of US Africa Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20 that China “continues to expand their base in Djibouti into a platform to project power across the continent and its waters – completing a large naval pier this year.”
Townsend said Beijing sought to open more bases, tying their commercial seaport investments in East, West and Southern Africa closely with involvement by Chinese military forces to further their geostrategic interests.
China has not responded to Washington’s latest claims. But last year, when the US Department of Defence alleged in its annual report to Congress that Beijing was planning to set up more military bases in Africa, China’s foreign ministry denied the reports and urged the US to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset, stop issuing irresponsible reports year after year.”
Jeffrey Becker, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Programme at the Centre for Naval Analyses, said that for China establishing a second African base was certainly a possibility as China’s interests in Africa and the surrounding regions continued to grow.
“Places such as Kenya and Tanzania on Africa’s east coast, or Namibia along the Atlantic, have been mentioned as possible locations,” Becker said.
“A second base in Africa would improve China’s ability to conduct a range of operations, including evacuating Chinese citizens in times of crisis and protecting China’s access to key maritime chokepoints in the region, which are critical to China’s trade and energy imports.”
Even if China were to open bases in those countries, Patey said “these plans may still pale in comparison to the hundreds of bases operated by the United States, but if enacted they would still extend China’s military reach far from its mainland and near waters.”
But US concern about China’s security presence in Africa was not especially grounded in national security rationale, according to Samuel Ramani, a tutor in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford in Britain.
Ramani said China and the US broadly supported a stable continental order and neither saw insurgencies or terrorism to their advantage. But Townsend’s comments reflected the US geopolitical rivalry with China and concerns about losing influence to China, Ramani said.
“It is about losing access to oil and mining resources, further erosion of US leverage in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and China gaining more influence, perhaps in concert with Russia, on Indian Ocean security,” Ramani said.
He said Beijing had been cautious about its next moves concerning naval bases in Africa.
“Sao Tome and Principe was rumoured as a naval base in 2018 and there are persistent rumours about Namibia being the site of an army base. Overall though, I see China treading cautiously and not proceeding to establish a base in the near future,” Ramani said.
David Shinn, a former US diplomat and a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the US had always been concerned about the global expansion of the PLA Navy, including its base in Djibouti.
“Over the short and medium term, I expect China will pursue dual-use port facilities in African waters rather than new military bases,” Shinn said. “That is one reason why China is pursuing so many equity investments in African ports.”
John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project, said the US had been encouraging China’s participation in peacekeeping as a means of showing that it was indeed a “responsible stakeholder.” But he said potential concerns included the proliferation of weapons and the possible acquisition of basing rights.
Calabrese said China’s sudden need to evacuate thousands of expatriate workers from Libya during the Arab spring drove home the need for China to develop the capacity to protect its far-flung overseas interests and assets.
Further, Calabrese said the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative extended and deepened Chinese commercial activities in the zone around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa domain in East Africa, justifying the need for a military presence in and around critical waterways and choke points at the Western extremity of the Maritime Silk Road.
Besides making baby steps as a blue-water navy, China is a key player in the UN-led peacekeeping missions in Africa, known as the blue helmets. The number of Chinese peacekeepers in Africa peaked at 2,620 in 2015 and then declined to about 2,100.
Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “there is a longer-term worry that Beijing could use its peacekeeping deployments as an excuse for building up military bases in Africa, ostensibly to support the blue helmets.”
However, he said Western fears about China’s peacekeeping ambitions were overstated and that “China has adopted a fairly cautious approach to UN deployments since 2017 when it suffered fatalities in Mali and South Sudan.”
“China’s single biggest UN deployment is in South Sudan, where it has an infantry battalion. This is, of course, in part linked to China’s energy interests there,” Gowan said.
China is sending rescue vessels to help retrieve the Indonesian submarine that sunk with the loss of all 53 crew members.
Ren Guoqiang, a spokesman for the defence ministry, said late on Friday that the ships had been sent upon the invitation of Indonesian government and they were heading for the Lombok Strait to help recover the KRI Nanggala 402, which went missing last Wednesday when taking part in a torpedo drill.
Citing an unnamed Chinese submarine expert, the state-owned tabloid Global Times said the rescue mission could also help China “study the maritime military geography of the area where the submarine was wrecked, as well as expanding the international cooperation and influence of our navy in submarine rescue and salvage.”
While the statement did not give further details of the ships the Chinese military has sent, the Indonesian Navy Information Service said in a statement on Saturday that three Chinese salvage ships, including a Type 925 rescue ship Yongxingdao, were expected to reach the waters off Bali where the sub was lost within days and would join its counterparts from Indonesia, the US, Australia Malaysia, Singapore and India in the recovery efforts.
On Friday, Indonesian navy chief Yudo Margono said the local authorities were waiting for the arrival of two ships, including one from China, that are equipped to handle deep-sea salvage operations.
China has been building up its own submarine rescue fleet after one of its vessels sank during an exercise in the Yellow Sea in April 2003 with the loss of all 70 crew members – one of the Chinese military’s worst peacetime disasters.
There has been speculation that China may also send one of its most advanced Type 926 supply and rescue ships, the Liugongdao, which is currently with the South Sea Fleet, to Indonesia to help with the salvage operations.
The vessel is equipped with a British-made deep-submergence rescue vehicle and a remotely operated underwater vehicle that can operate at a depth of 1,000 metres, Global Times reported.
While China’s submarine rescue ships have taken part in international exercises in the past, it will be the first time it has taken place in an international recovery mission of this sort.
Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor and military analyst, said the “highly challenging operation” could provide valuable experience for the future and would offer the opportunity to study the topography of the seabed that “would be beneficial to the navy.”
China’s newly commissioned nuclear-powered submarine is armed with the country’s most powerful submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of hitting the US mainland, according to a military source and analysts.
The Type 094A, or Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), was presented last Friday as part of the celebration to mark the 72nd anniversary of the PLA Navy. It was capable of firing the JL-3, or Julang (Big Wave) SLBM with a range over 10,000km (6,200 miles), a source close to the navy said.
“The Type 094A is an upgraded version of the Type 094 that overcame one of the key problems – noise – by improving hydrokinetic and turbulent systems, allowing it to carry the more powerful JL-3,” said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“Before the upgrade, the submarine was armed with the inferior JL-2 that could only hit the northeast United States, but now it’s able to cover the whole American continent.”
According to Forbes, before entering striking distance of the continental United States, the Type 094A subs would have to slip past a cordon of US military bases in the Pacific dubbed the first island chain – exposing the subs to detection and attack by American P-8 anti-sub patrol planes, surface warships and other undersea reconnaissance capabilities.
Chinese submarines have been dogged by the problem of being too noisy and easy to detect but that has largely been remedied in recent years by Chinese naval engineer Rear Adm. Ma Weiming, who is now taking the lead in a cutting-edge propulsion technology, according to state media.
The JL-3 is able to deliver the same multiple warheads, including nuclear warheads like the JL-2 does, the source added without giving more detail.
Each JL-2 missile can be armed with either a single megaton-yield warhead 67 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima – or three to eight smaller multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that can each strike different targets, according to a Forbes report in May last year.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said the news indicated that some technical breakthroughs had been achieved to make the JL-2 fit the silos of the Type 094A.
“The original design and size of the JL-3 should be adjusted, but those changes do not reduce its firepower and range – a significant breakthrough,” Wong said.
Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping did not say what type of SLBM the Type 094A was armed with but said it would boost China’s second-strike capability – its ability to retaliate after a nuclear strike.
“The new SLBM with MIRVs with a firing range over 10,000km is the basic technical requirement for an upgraded Type 094 SSBN to cause nuclear deterrence,” he said. “China promises not to use a nuke first but a powerful SSBN fleet will help the PLA strengthen their second-strike power against rivals.”
China has six Type 094 and Type 094A SSBNs and plans to build a further two to replace the Type 092 SSBNs, according to the source.
Sources said last year that the PLA planned to arm the Type 096 submarine with JL-3 missiles, a process that could take years to complete.
Each Type 094 submarine is able to carry 16 JL-3 missiles, but the upgraded Type 096 could carry 24 JL-3s, according to a Pentagon report on China’s military capabilities.
The Type 094A was one of the three new warships put into service on the same day. The others were the Type 075 amphibious helicopter assault ship and the Type 055 Renhai-class guided missile cruiser.