Chinese sub-plot is not a secret, but the implications are ‘profound’


Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing in October. Russian technology is being used to improve the stealthiness of Beijing’s submarine fleet.Credit: AP

The Australian navy divers who were hurt by powerful underwater sonar two weeks ago didn’t attack themselves. The Australian air force surveillance plane in international airspace last year didn’t risk the lives of its crew by firing flares and throwing aluminium chaff into its own flight path. And the Australian air force patrol over Australia’s exclusive economic zone last year didn’t target itself with the type of high-powered laser used to prepare a missile attack.

The point? Context is important. We don’t have the luxury of defending against a hypothetical adversary. We have to plan for a very real one. It’s increasingly aggressive and we know its name.

As Peter Layton of the Griffith Asia Institute wrote last year in discussing the dangerous interceptions of Australian craft: “Trying to injure people appears on its way to being the new Chinese grey-zone norm. Chinese grey-zone actions have become more black and white than the term implies.”

The Chinese military’s scuffles against Australia are relatively new and few. It’s been conducting more concerted efforts to intimidate a dozen other nations with dangerous but non-kinetic encounters in the air and on the sea, weak nations and strong alike.

Over the weekend, for instance, the Philippines complained that China was “swarming” 135 of its large fishing vessels around a reef in the Philippines exclusive economic zone where Beijing seeks to annex maritime territories in breach of international law.

United States and Philippine ships conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea this week.

United States and Philippine ships conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea this week.Credit: Armed Forces of the Philippines

And, in October, the Pentagon published a report of 180 cases where China’s air force had conducted “dangerous” manoeuvres against the US Air Force over the preceding two years.

Why all of this friction? To bully other nations into retreating from international air and sea space, to “win without fighting”, to establish dominance in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

So Australia, with many other countries, is planning for an increasingly testy future with Beijing. But isn’t Xi’s Type 096 program simply a reaction to Australia’s AUKUS plan? Didn’t we provoke China?

Quite the contrary. The first reports of the Type 096 emerged a decade ago; AUKUS was conceived two years ago.

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“I keep making the point when we are accused of starting an arms race that, no, we are responding sensibly – and probably not enough – to the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and its nuclear submarines in particular,” says Peter Dean, lead author of Australia’s defence strategic review and military historian.

“The Type 096 reaffirms the importance of AUKUS” submarines, he tells me. “The defence strategic review talks about the importance of asymmetric warfare – we can’t have an across-the-board capability against China,” seeking to match it in every way.

“We seem to have a generational lead against Russia and China” by adopting three to five Virginia class subs initially, then developing a joint Australia-Britain submarine thereafter. Investing in AUKUS subs “will keep us there. We have to maintain areas where we have a capability edge.” Note that Australia is not planning to have any subs capable of carrying nuclear arms.

China has more submarines than the US, but only six nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed whereas the US has 14. The American fleet is stealthier; China’s Type 096 is aiming to change that with up to eight next-generation subs which use Russian technology to improve the stealthiness of Beijing’s fleet.

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Although Beijing keeps its plans secret, research by the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute says that the Type 096 will be difficult for the US to detect. One of the paper’s authors, Christopher Carlson, told Reuters that they’ll be “a nightmare” to detect.

If so, for the first time the US will confront two peer nuclear adversaries – Russia and China. Precisely for these reasons, the three AUKUS nations announced on Saturday an intensified program to pool their high-tech efforts at undersea detection.

Australia should continue to scrutinise and debate its AUKUS arrangements, as any democracy would. But it’d be more realistic to weigh the benefits as well as the costs. The existence of an adversary is not academic, and neither should our debates be. We’re not the only fish in the sea.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.



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