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China’s ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’In July, China was told by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that its claims in the South China Sea exceeded what was allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In particular, it found that China’s claimed “nine-dash line,” which included most of the water, features and islands in the South China Sea, is invalid. This ruling, while important, won’t mean much unless it changes the facts on the ground—or on the water.
China has been changing those facts over the past three years by building its own islands on reefs in the Spratly chain. The court found several of these artificial islands are in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China has been equipping them and previously captured islands in the Paracels with military facilities such as runways and air defense weapons to extend the reach of their “anti-access” military capabilities.
And China is now talking about establishing a foothold on the South China Sea floor with a new project mentioned in China’s most recent five-year plan that would place a “deep-sea space station” there. The station would host dozens of research and military personnel at depths up to 9,800 ft. below the surface for up to a month at a time. This unprecedented project would be enormously challenging on a number of fronts. For instance, whereas deep submergence vehicles such as NOAA’s Alvin and the U.S. Navy’s NR-1 have operated at these depths with small crews for days at a time, sustaining dozens of personnel continuously for years creates the need for high-endurance power sources and a reliable method to shuttle people and materials to and from the station.
The Chinese station would likely need to be nuclear powered, which could enable it to provide breathable air and drinkable water like a submarine. The Chinese Navy and shipbuilding industry have some experience with nuclear power for submarines. This could be very expensive, however, because of the depths at which the station will operate and the need for it to do so for years at a time without significant maintenance. If the station is to be brought ashore for maintenance, the frequent launch and recovery of the station will require that it be able to sustain the stress of relatively frequent depth changing and be equipped for regular lifting and towing; features that will add cost.
Given the expense and engineering challenges involved, it is worth asking why China would pursue such a project. According to Bloomberg News, China’s private and government R&D spending was about $260 billion last year. This project alone will cost several billion dollars. The answer may involve what could be under the seafloor near the station and in China’s need to improve its capability to counter quiet U.S. submarines.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that the South China Sea may be home to up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That seems like a large amount, but consider the U.S. has about 40 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, even after pumping oil for more than 100 years.
China’s own oil estimates for the region are 10 times what the EIA projects. This may be hyperbole or wishful thinking, but China’s high estimates for the oil and gas under the South China Sea provide a commercial rationale for island building and exploration projects such as the deep-sea station.
The military benefits of controlling the South China Sea are even more important. Half of the world’s trade and about a third of oil shipments pass through the South China Sea, and several chokepoints there offer opportunities to block or slow commercial shipping. For China, the region is seen as a buffer against foreign (read U.S.) influence and a place from which they can project military power against neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines. According to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling, China may still own the islands it created in the South China Sea, although they may not be legally usable for military operations because they fall within the Philippines’ EEZ. China might ignore the ruling and continue using the facilities. It could also continue to pursue undersea capabilities in the South China Sea away from public view—even in other countries’ EEZs.
The undersea station provides a way for China to continue building its presence in the South China Sea in the face of the tribunal’s ruling, provided the station isn’t placed in another country’s EEZ or is deployed clandestinely so the station’s true location is unknown. It could form a piece of the “Underwater Great Wall Project” China has proposed to counter the ability of U.S. submarines and other undersea forces to operate in the East and South China Seas. This system of seabed and floating sonar arrays and other sensors could reduce the freedom of operation for U.S submarines near China’s coast. It could drive the U.S. to rely increasingly on unmanned systems such as large UUVs to conduct surveillance, mining or anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations within the “First Island Chain” formed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.
China is unlikely to accept the recent court ruling and stop its efforts to militarize the South China Sea. Instead, it might choose to accelerate its efforts to shift capabilities undersea to stay out of sight of regulators and their neighbors. The U.S. and its allies will need to be prepared to evolve their undersea capabilities in response.
Prior to joining the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in 2013, Bryan Clark was special assistant to the chief of U.S. Naval Operations and director of his commander’s Action Group, where he led development of U.S. Navy strategy and implemented new initiatives in electromagnetic spectrum operations, undersea warfare, expeditionary operations, and personnel and readiness management.
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