Year Of The Water Dragon
January 23, 2012 by staff
Year Of The Water Dragon, China has now entered the Year of the Dragon. According to traditional geomancy, for the first time since 1952, the year will be associated with the element water. Sixty years ago, in the throes of the Korean War, Beijing could scarcely have been further from the water. Today, however, China’s shipyards are humming and the PLA Navy (PLAN) is sustaining operations half a world away in the Gulf of Aden.
Beginning with the major potential newsmakers, here are 12 key things to watch for and what they mean:
–A sharper than expected fall in economic expansion in 2012 would shed light on how China’s 5th-generation leadership might balance domestic concerns and defense modernization if China begins moving onto a slower economic growth path. Mostanlysts appear to be forecasting GDP growth of greater than 8% in 2012. If growth falls at the low end of the forecasted range, and especially if it comes in closer to the long-term official benchmark of 7% GDP growth, China’s new leaders might limit capital-intensive naval modernization that will not provide immediate capabilities to ensure funds for economic stimulus measures.
–Expect continued friction and possible skirmishes in the South China Sea, especially between Chinese and Vietnamese maritime forces. Beijing’s assertive approach regarding maritime issues in the South and East China Seas will likely generate additional friction with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. South Korea plans to begin using military special forces personnel armed with firearms on fishing enforcement missions. Serious confrontations involving Chinese fishermen are highly likely.
–The PLAN will likely take steps to sustain a longer-term presence in the Indian Ocean region. New Delhi will take notice. Sustained expeditionary military operations necessitate access to regional replenishment and repair facilities. The PLA’s Gulf of Aden deployment is allowing it to build relationships through port visits in places like Port Salalah in Oman that stand to help it gain more formal access to regional harbors and airfields, which can be used to provide logistical support for future missions. China is most likely to pursue a “places, not bases” approach, since large fixed bases on foreign soil might create major diplomatic and security challenges that would undermine Beijing’s ability to portray its behavior as being different from that of the U.S. Locations where the PLAN might seek additional logistical support and access that in the foreseeable future include Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Djibouti, Salalah (Oman), Karachi (Pakistan), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Hambantota and Colombo (Sri Lanka), Mauritius (where Port Louis has sufficient draft to accommodate a large warship), Kyukaphu (Burma) and Singapore.
– PLAN ship construction will continue at a robust pace as yards build a wide array of modern warships including the Type 071 amphibious vessel and the new Type 56 corvette. Unlike the West, where procurement is suffering amidst defense budget cuts, Chinese military shipbuilding continues steadily. Evidence of China’s first indigenous carrier hull may emerge even as its first foreign-purchased hull, the ex-Varyag, begins rudimentary flight operations.
–2012 may bring China’s first lethal or casualty-generating engagement with pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Over the past three years, 10 PLAN task forces with 8,400 officers have performed 409 escort missions for 4,411 Chinese and foreign ships in and near the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN has also helped 48 vessels that had been attacked or released by pirates. While the PLAN has thus far not re-taken a hijacked vessel kinetically or inflicted casualties on pirates as the U.S., French or Indian navies have, it may end up trading fire with pirates in 2012 thanks to accidents or unforeseen contingencies.
– A second-ever PLAN-facilitated evacuation of Chinese citizens from an unstable coastal nation could well become necessary. Yemen and Syria loom large, with Sudan and Pakistan more remote possibilities. Following the overwhelming success of China’s first such effort in Libya last March (with token air force and naval support), Chinese at home and abroad have heightened expectations. Locals would do well to avoid harming Chinese in crisis zones.
– China may conduct its first naval humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation. In 2010, Beijing sent helicopters to Pakistan to assist with flood relief. Its Type 071 amphibious warship and Peace Ark hospital ship might play even more useful roles if they could reach a crisis zone in time.
– China’s first real sea-based nuclear deterrent is approaching. China’s Jin-class ballistic missile submarines remain too noisy to patrol confident that they won’t be detected by other navies’ anti-submarine platforms. However, apparently successful tests of the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile in December 2011 suggest China’s seaborne nuclear deterrent program is making meaningful progress.
– China’s civil maritime forces will expand their capabilities and activities. China’s non-Navy maritime security services are likely to increasingly support the PLA Navy (PLAN) in 2012. This can help free up PLAN vessels for missions further afield. Key missions will likely include additional patrols and probing operations in disputed zones such as the East and South China Seas where using PLAN forces could risk escalating maritime conflicts more than using the Coast Guard forces would. China’s dispatch of its largest patrol vessel, newly-commissioned Haijian 50, to contested parts of the East China Sea in December 2011 is a bellwether.
– China expects to begin drilling its first ultra-deepwater oil/gas well with a domestically-made drillship. Vietnam and the Philippines will likely be unsettled, despite the fact that the initial deepwater well will most likely be drilled in the northern South China Sea within the undisputed portion of China’s claimed EEZ.
– China’s seaborne crude-oil import dependency will rise further. Overland pipelines cannot offset growing demand and oil delivered by pipelines is in many instances less secure and more expensive than oil delivered by sea. High and rising dependence on seaborne natural resource imports will likely help PLAN strategists make a stronger case for building a blue water navy.
– Beijing will scrutinize American and European fiscal challenges and government spending and policy implications in search of opportunities. China will likely intensify its push to persuade the EU to lift its arms embargo, which was imposed in the wake of Tiananmen Square.
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