September 24, 2015

China's South China Sea Island Base Building

Map 1. Around one half of the world's sea trade (including oil tankers) moves from the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca and into the South China Sea to major markets in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The South China Sea can be blocked by China - facilitated by the reef-islands China is turning into bases in the Spratly and Paracel islands (Map 1. courtesy

In April 2015 there were increasing reports that China was militarising:
-  Cuarteron Reef - an artificial island where China has built a powerful surveillance radar. The reef is to the right of LONDON REEFS (see above in Spratly Islands on map above), and
-  Scarborough Reef or Shoal, in the sea about 400 km west of Manila (see mao above). 

Map 2. Simplified map of Spratly Islands showing China's developing naval and air bases at Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. 

The Spratly Islands is an ongoing territorial dispute between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The dispute involves low-level military pressure techniques (such as military occupation of disputed territory, reef base building, sea "militia" actions, coastguard vessels and low flying aircraft harassment) to advance strategic land and undersea oil/gas claims. The sea is heavily used by cargo and warships on it and aircraft over it. All of the above countries except Brunei occupy some of the islands-reefs. The US, India, Japan and Russia are also involved. 

The Paracel Islands in the northern South China Sea are also heavily contested.

Australia's new Prime Minister, Turnbull, made a foreign policy statement on September 21, 2015, which roundly criticised China for its increasingly aggressive activities in the South China Sea (which particularly means the Spratlys as they are nearer to Australia than other disputed islands). He described China as "pushing the envelope". 

China's building of naval and air bases (using rapid sand dredging landfill) in the South China Sea is driving a geographical wedge between (Australia and some Southeast Asian nations) and their strategic and economic allies in Northeast Asia (including Japan and South Korea).



This island-reef base building has implications for Western/free world submarine operations as it will enhance China's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities in terms of future deployment on the island bases of such weapons/sensors as:

-  undersea sensor arrays possibly extending from Mischief Reef (see Map 3. below) to China's Hainan Island or the Chinese mainland. "It appears that three acoustic monitoring sensors are linked up to different underwater fibre-optic detection networks."

- ASW aircraft (eg. the Orion like the Y-8Q fixed wing MPA (see below) and helicopters like the future Z-18F (see below)

- strike fighters (like the J-16J-10)

- emerging air superiority fighters like the future J-31 (see model below) and  J-20 . The stealthy J-20, J-XX,  J-21, J-25 and J-31 are competing 2 engine, long range design concepts with one or two  deployed around 2022. They may be ideally suited to over water operations over the South China Sea. They look similar to the F-22 and/or F-35 but currently lack sufficiently powerful engines, adequate electronic stealth and radar absorbent material (RAM) coating.

- refueling aircraft

- anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles

- missiles (cruise and ballistic) with ASW, anti-shipping and land attack capabilities

- ASW warships including new Type 056 corvettes (photo below) and Type 052C detroyers

- island-reef based radar, satellite up/downlink and signals interception stations

Map 3. An increasingly effective anti-submarine (and anti-ship) measure is undersea arrays which connect sensors and can be laced with mines (for remote electronic activation in wartime). China may well have laid a fixed undersea array from (aptly named) Mischief Reef (above map) to Sanya naval base on China's Hainan Island. (Map courtesy Quartz website)

China's new Type 056 corvette with numerous sonars (including towed array) and several weapons for ASW ops (Photo courtesy Navy Recognition website)

Next Generation Chinese Z-18F ASW helicopter for finding, tracking and destroying enemy submarines. It is to be outfitted with a sonobuoy launcher, forward looking infrared radar (FLIR) system multi-mode 360° surveillance radar mounted under nose, a dipping sonar, and four weapon stations to carry anti-submarine torpedoes, depth charges and air-to-surface missiles. (Graphic courtesy Chinese Military Review

Chinese Y-8Q GX6 maritime patrol aircraft with an outsize magnetic anomally detector tail boom. Obvious similarities with US P-3 Orion and Russia's Ilyshin Il-38. (Photo courtesy Chinese Military Review)


Below I concentrate on the three most controversial and extensive Chinese air and naval base building efforts in the Spratlys. These are at Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef

Fiery Cross (or Yongshu in Chinese) Reef below - Satellite photographs indicate China had almost finished an enclosed harbour and 3,000 meter airstrip below,

Fiery Cross Reef (above) is shown in this handout satellite image dated September 3, 2015 (Satellite image via Reuters).


Subi Reef (or "Zhubi" in Chinese) below - with three photos indicating China's rapid progress in sand dredging landfill - April 2015, June 2015 and by August 2015 Subi is almost a completely enclosed harbour. Port facilities and a 3,000 meter airstrip will soon be built.

(Satellite image courtesy Victor Robert Lee and Digital Globe via The Diplomat

Subi (or Zhubi) Reef (above) 2 months later in August 8, 2015 (Satellite image courtesy CSIS/AMTI via Reuters)


Mischief Reef - image below shows a dredged sand retaining wall around an area 3,000 meters long for a runway and harbour, matching similar work on Subi and Fiery Cross.
Mischief Reef satellite image (above) dated September 8, 2015 and provided by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe September 14, 2015. (Photo via Reuters)


As the three reefs are near the Philippines that country is now seeking renewed US involvement in defence issues if at all possible. Japan is also assisting the Philippines with patrol boats and aircraft.

Other Spratly reefs China may be militarising include Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef  and Cuarteron Reef.

Vietnam is also concerned about the rapid Chinese buildup, hence Vietnam is also seeking and receiving political and some military support from the US, Russia and India.

It appears China's main justification in claiming the South China Sea is the name South China Sea. With rising Chinese national power comes expectations of control in this rising power's region - a type of Chinese Monroe Doctrine.



Nicky said...

Hi Pete,
That's why Vietnam is way ahead of the Philippines in terms of Military modernization. Look at what Vietnam is doing to China's AD/A2 policy and turning the tables on China.

Nicky said...

Hi Pete,
You may want to see this story,Chinese Subs Finally Get a Shot at American Carriers
A lot has changed in two decades

imacca said...

The environmental damage from this program is huge. :(

And i wonder? Just how much elevation these facilities have? WE are seeing a monster El Nino this year with at one stage a few weeks ago 3 big typhoons in the Pacific heading west.

I would question the vulnerability of China's basing in the South China Sea to storm surge's. I mean, its all built on sand basically plopped onto the top of a reef.

Nicky said...

Hi Pete,
Looks like Indonesia has become the Latest Customer to buy the Improved Kilo 636 class Submarine. It looks like the Kilo class SSK is fast becoming popular as the SU-30

Indonesia to Buy New Submarines from Russia
Officials remain bullish about purchase in spite of budget cuts.

Pete said...

Hi Nicky [September 25, 2015 at 4:03 AM]

I agree. Vietnam maintains a non-aligned foreign policy, spends much more on defence and has less corruption (private armies) in its defence force. The Philippines is again attempting to host US bases on high rental terms.

Vietnam, with its 6 Kilo submarines, is in adifferent world to Philippine dependency.



Pete said...

Hi imacca

The environmental vulnerability of China's reef-sand bases occurred to me to. If there was any storm surge or Tsunami disaster I'm confident China would try a media coverup. Post disaster imagery would tell the tale.

I'd say China will eventually reincforce the reef bases with heavy bolders, steel and cement in vast quantities to reduce such vulnerability, making the elevation higher and providing firmer ground for emplacing facilities.



Pete said...

Thanks Nicky [September 25, 2015 at 10:28 AM

I'll have a look at Chinese Subs Finally Get a Shot at American Carriers



Pete said...

Hi Nicky [Sep 25, 2015 11:33AM]

Re Indonesia may buy Improved Kilos

The Indonesians rumour that about twice a year every year. It seems to be on the Indonesian Navy wishlist but the civilian government and Army keep on saying no.

I'll wait for a price to be set and contract signed before doing an article.



Nicky said...

Hi Pete,
That's why when it comes to Military Modernization, I think Vietnam has the Philippines Beat in that department.

As far as Indonesia, I think the Kilo class or Amur class SSK is perfect for them. Like your said, let's wait to see what the price tag will be and wait until the ink is dry on the contract.

Pete said...

Hi Nicky [September 26, 2015 at 1:08 AM]

Yes the Admirals of Indonesia would do well to align themselves with Putin and Russia needs the hard currency from Indonesia.

Russian subs initially seem a bargain at purchase then high costs of maintenance, inefficiency and racism of Russian advisers appears.