Geography has been unkind to China. And this could very well provide the US and its QUAD allies with a chance to counter Beijing in the disputed waters of the South and East China seas.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has proposed creating an “integrated deterrence”, with the help of allies, most likely to counter China’s covert submarine activities.
Austin put forward his idea during his first policy speech last week.
China’s need to dominate the South China Sea and the East China Sea may be linked to its insecurity of having an island chain in those waters. This chain starts from the islands of Japan to the Philippines before tapering off to the South East Asian archipelago.
According to the popular ‘Island Chain Strategy’, the islands make it easier for any military to attack from the Pacific Ocean while making it difficult for China to defend itself without controlling them. Conveniently, China’s nine-dash line and claim over the East China sea cover these areas.
These points have effectively become chokepoints for China. Submarines need to surface to pass through the narrow straits separating these islands.
The US could thus choose chokepoint control as a form of deterrence and Japan’s role will be quite significant in this aspect, according to Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp.
The island chains also have deep waters surrounding them while Chinese waters are more shallow.
Each of China’s submarine bases has a fair bit of shallow water that their submarines have to transit through to get into deep water, Tom Shugart, a former US Navy submariner, told Nikkei Asia.
On the other hand, Japanese and Taiwanese submarines can immediately go down under.
The Submarine Menace
China’s claim over its surrounding waters is augmented by its military might. It currently has the largest naval fleet.
Its submarines also give China the potential to spy on its neighbors. The Eurasian Times had reported on the underwater submarine drone found by an Indonesian fisherman late last year.
China’s latest Type-093A submarine also comes equipped with noise-reducing devices making its fleet more stealthy.
India has concerns about the increasing Chinese submarine presence in its neighboring waters. Japan has reached out to India to help build military infrastructure on the latter’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are strategically located at the western entrance to the Malacca Strait, Southeast Asia’s main shipping lane.
The islands’ location next to these straits can be viewed as another chokepoint as it provides the Indian Navy with the scope to monitor Chinese submarines. There have also been reports of India building a “sound surveillance sensors chain” in the Andaman sea with the help of the US and Japan to create a counter-wall against Chinese submarines.
A United Front Against China?
Austin’s speech need not be only understood in the integration of all military services of the US, but also a potential collaboration between the US and its allies. And QUAD, the informal alliance of countries committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, can be an effective tool to achieve this goal.
Hornung detailed what Japan’s role could be in this aspect. He talked about a “combination of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s submarine capabilities and defensive mining,” specifically “anti-ship cruise missiles or P-3C maritime patrol aircraft to find and hunt Chinese subs”.
Shugart floated the idea of including Australia and South Korea in any potential plan. Japan along with Australia has a large fleet of diesel-electric submarines that can be employed at the chokepoints.
Countries lying in the first island chain will probably be crucial for any joint effort as Japan alone cannot fully deter China. Lately, due to an increase in Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia have started inclining more towards the US and its allies.
America already has military bases in the Japanese part of the island chain along with one in Guam at the second island chain. The Philipinnes recently decided to reverse its decision to terminate the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Like India, Indonesia is also improving its infrastructure to detect submarine activity. Last month, it began construction on a submarine ‘support station’ in the Lampa Strait, near the South China Sea.