Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Beware the wolfpack

China is developing coordinated ocean and air-based capabilities -- including a big boost to its submarine fleet -- that are specifically designed to counter US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific Ocean

By Wang Kun-yi王崑義


Whether it was Taiwan or Japan who first detected a Chinese Han-class nuclear submarine in Japanese territorial waters remains something of a mystery. But what this incident does indicate is that China is seeking to break through the First Island Chain that the US has established to contain it, and that its ambitions to approach the Second Island Chain are growing daily. If the US, Japan and Taiwan cannot establish an effective "security alliance," then this unstable chain around China will become a source of concern for the future security of East Asia.

The First Island Chain refers to a curved line hemming in China that runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Indonesia. During the Cold War it was regarded as the US's first line of defense. The Second Island Chain refers to a line from the island of Midway through Guam, the Marianas, the South Pacific Islands and the Palau Islands. This was the US' second line of defense, which also defended its own territory.

In 1993, Liu Huaqing (劉華清), the deputy chairman of China's Central Military Commission (CMC), initiated a shift toward an ocean-going naval strategy, changing the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) naval deployments from those suited to coastal defense toward a blue-water defense formation, thereby making the strategic role of the Second Island Chain much more important.

Because of this shift in strategy, China has also been actively expanding the scope of its ocean-going activities. According to the Japanese government, there have been numerous sightings of Chinese naval surveillance craft in waters near Japan.

In 1999 there were 12 incidents, in 2000 there were 18, in 2001 this fell to seven, then in 2002 rose to 17, down to eight last year, with the number spiking this year with 17 incidents in the year to May -- including 14 incidents in which vessels broke through the First Island Chain and gradually pushed toward the Second Island Chain.

Many military analysts believe that the reason for China broadening the operational scope of their surveillance vessels is to collect information about the distribution of currents and water temperatures for use during combat and also the sonar mapping of undersea terrain. They believe that these missions are purely to increase military preparedness with the aim of locking out US aircraft carrier groups based in the Pacific if they attempt to enter the Taiwan Strait in the event of a crisis.

Even if the US has a large number of carrier battle groups based in the Pacific, it is still not clear how they will be deployed in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

In an interview with Voice of America, Admiral Joseph Prueher, former commander-in-chief of US Pacific Command, said that when he ordered the USS Independence carrier group into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 he was not immediately clear as to the purpose of the maneuver and only later realized that this was in fulfillment of the US' commitments to Taiwan. He said that if China had persisted in its missile tests, he had no idea how the carrier group could have responded militarily.

China perceives the weakness of the US carrier-based strategy and in its latest round of military improvements, it has adopted submarine wolfpack techniques. In addition to the general principle of "where you find one submarine, there will be 20," the PLA has coordinated this with other arms of the military to create a mixed force to converge on carrier groups.

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