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PLA Posturing for Conflict in the South China Sea?

August 11, 2010

Russell Hsiao
China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 16
The Jamestown Foundation
August 5, 2010

The recent revelation of a Second Artillery Corps
(SAC) facility that is under development in
China's southern coastal province, Guangdong, and
the "unprecedented" maneuvers undertaken by the
combined naval fleets of the People's Liberation
Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea are only
the latest in a string of developments that
suggest changes in Chinese strategic posture may
be underway (AsiaEye, August 3; South China
Morning Post, July 30). These developments appear
to be part of a larger effort by the Chinese
military to accelerate the re-posturing of its
strategic forces in light of thawing cross-Strait
relations and to add strength to China's
increasingly assertive claims to the South China
Sea and other areas that Beijing considers of "core interest."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry's rhetoric of
cooperation in resolving territorial disputes in
the South China Sea has been replaced by a tone
that has grown increasingly assertive in recent
years. The latest escalation of tension in the
South China Sea is widely seen as a Chinese
response to U.S. efforts to mediate competing
claims in the region. Growing tensions have been
accompanied by an increased level of Chinese
naval activity and advances in military
modernization that appear directed at countering
U.S. capabilities to intervene in the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi even went so
far as to characterize the most recent U.S.
overture as "an attack on China" (PRC Foreign Ministry website, July 26).

Following the tense exchange between Beijing and
Washington, Chinese state-media reported that the
PLAN was organizing a large-scale exercise in the
South China Sea. PLA Chief of General Staff Chen
Bingde and PLAN Commander Wu Shengli supervised
the exercise. "We must pay close attention to
changes in [regional] situations and the
development of our mission; prepare ourselves for
military struggle," Chief General Staff Chen was
quoted by the state media as saying (South China Morning Post, July 30).

According to Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher of
the China Arms Control and Disarmament
Association, the three fleets of the PLAN
regularly conduct separate exercises to mark the
PLA's founding anniversary on August 1. "But of
course, this time there is a strategic necessity
to bring all three together for such a big joint
mission" (South China Morning Post, July 30). The
South China Sea exercise exhibited the PLA's
comprehensive array of long-range attack
capabilities, including missiles launched from
submarines and fast-attack craft. More
significantly, the exercise displayed the PLA's
increasing capability to project force across a wide range of platforms.

China’s force posture appears to be evolving in
tandem with the PLA's growing capabilities and
adapting to shifts in the changing security
environment. This trend is not limited to the
Chinese Navy and Air Force but also the SAC.

The SAC’s relocation of a new brigade in the
Guangzhou Military Region (MR) was highlighted by
an August 3 entry on the Project 2049's AsiaEye,
which reported that the Chinese state-run media
unveiled a project to construct a new Second
Artillery missile brigade -- the 96166 Unit -- in
the northern Guangdong municipality of Shaogun (AsiaEye, August 3).

While the exact motive of relocating the brigade
to Shaogun is not known, experts speculate that
it may be equipped with the DF-21C medium-range
ballistic missile or DF-21D anti-ship ballistic
missile (ASBM). According to Retired Major Mark
Stokes and Tiffany Ma, the authors of the Project
2049 report, the 96166 Unit’s move to Shaoguan
also coincides with the permanent deployment of
another possible DF-21-related unit in Guangdong.
The 96219 Unit—which has been attached to a host
DF-21 brigade in Chuxiong, Yunnan province—has
reportedly been moved to Guangdong’s Qingyuan
municipality. Another Second Artillery facility,
which may be a forward deployment base for ground
launched cruise missiles, is reportedly also
under construction in the eastern suburbs of
Sanya City on Hainan Island off the coast of
Guangdong. These recent developments, they argue,
"signal a possible broadening of the Second
Artillery’s capabilities in alignment with
China’s widening ‘core interests’ in the region" (AsiaEye, August 3).

Coupled with the over the horizon radar (OTHR)
system under development on Hainan Island, these
systems combined would provide the SAC with
long-range, accurate targeting of United States
carrier battle groups and other important naval
assets in the region (See "China’s Conventional
Cruise and Ballistic Missile Force Modernization
and Deployment," China Brief, January 7). To be
sure, China's development of anti-access
capabilities could seriously complicate any U.S.
ability to maneuver the maritime terrain in this region.

In the final analysis, China’s force posture
appears to be evolving with the PLA's growing
capabilities and adapting to shifts in the
changing security environment. As the SACs' force
modernization gains speed with the development of
more advanced missiles, the role of the SAC in
securing the strategic sea-lanes surrounding
China’s coast appears to be growing. These new
SAC assets could free up China's growing navy and
air force to undertake operations farther from
shore. As China continues to develop, field and
expand its stock of weaponry, the possible
deployment of anti-access capabilities,
longer-range conventional ballistic missiles and
anti-ship ballistic missiles—which are all under
development—could seriously challenge U.S.
strategic posture in the region. As time
progresses, the PLA may have the ability to hold
at risk all classes of targets in the western Pacific and South China Sea.
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