The Asian coast and its geopolitical influence in the China Dream

The map shows the Asian coast that Beijing considers strategically important to pursue its China Dream (Credits: CC BY 4.0, www.bing.com/map)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 16 Issue 3
Author: Riccardo Rossi

In the geopolitical project presented in 2013 by the Xi Jinping Presidency for the Asia-Pacific region called China Dream, Beijing attributed a high degree of geostrategic importance to the coastline of the Asian mainland, particularly towards its foreshore segment as it is considered indispensable to pursue specific political-strategic objectives within the Eastern and Southern sides of the China Sea, respectively bounded to the east by the First island chain.[1]

This assessment has resulted in a program for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to militarise a large part of the Chinese coastal segment by expanding the People Liberation Army (PLA) bases located within this geo-maritime area.

Because of this strategic calculation made by the Xi Jinping Presidency, this analysis aims to study Beijing’s reasons for this choice and then assess how this has affected the definition of political-strategic objectives and the consequent military strategies.

The geostrategic value of the coast of the Asian continent

To understand why the PRC attributes great importance to the Asian coastline, it is necessary to examine the foreign policy plan launched by the Xi Jinping Presidency called China Dream to restore the nation to a position of primary importance within the International Community and the Asia-Pacific.[2]

In the case of Asia-Pacific, the implementation of this program has led Beijing to consider the region as a strategically non-homogenous space because, in this area, there are some politically more important zones than others. This affirmation finds confirmation in the decision of the Xi Jinping Presidency to focus a good part of its economic-military resources towards the central-south-western Asia-Pacific quadrant, including the geo-maritime area of the China Sea, divided into its two sides, East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS)[3].

Beijing implemented this arrangement considering the peculiar geo-physical conformation of the China Sea, which can be traced back to its intermediate position between the Asian coastline and the first island chain, and the inclusion within its waters of archipelagos (Senkaku, Spratly and Paracelsus) and four maritime straits: Taiwan, Miyako, Luzon and Malacca, which represent the only access and exit routes to and from the China Sea. Of these straits, Taiwan interconnects the ECS with its twin SCS, Miyako connects the waters of the ECS with the open Pacific, Luzon relates the SCS with the Pacific Ocean. Finally, Malacca connects the SCS with the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

For the Xi Jinping Presidency, this distinct conformation of the China Sea designates a conditioning factor in implementing its active posture within the Central-Southwest Asia-Pacific, responding to two political-strategic priorities.

The first one observes the need to exploit the economic potential of the China Sea assimilated to a large number of fossil resources, and the need to supervise the vital Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that crossing its waters and straits just examined, interconnect the main Chinese ports to the Northern Sea Route and the Malacca maritime trade route.[4] The second priority can be traced back to the proximity of some sectors of the first island chain such as the island of Taiwan and the Japanese archipelago to the Chinese coastal segment, where the most significant cities, port infrastructures and military bases of the PLA are built and, in case of conflict with the United States, they would be the object of maritime power projection operations conducted by the U.S. armed forces[5].

Combining these two political-strategic pre-eminences required the Xi Jinping Presidency to develop a military doctrine that accorded the adoption of a war development program to optimise the tactical key of its coastline, particularly towards three sectors.

The first one includes the northern shoreline segment marked by three peninsulas: Liaodong, Shandong and Korea. The first two peninsulas, located mirror-like to each other, constitute the two shores of the Bohai Strait, to which Beijing recognises the particular strategic value since it is the obligatory passage between the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea. To these two peninsulas is added Korea, which for the PRC represents a potential danger for the security of the nation, primarily due to the North Korean nuclear development program, which has led to an increase of the U.S. military assets in South Korea.[6]

The combination of the geostrategic importance of the Bohai Strait and the instability in the Korean peninsula has forced President Xi Jining to establish the Northern Theater Command in this area, which has been assigned the task of defending Chinese sovereignty in case of a conflict in Korea or the geo-maritime space of the Bohai and Yellow Seas. To ensure the fulfilment of this task, the Northern Theater Command controls a sizeable military force primarily distributed in the Shandong and the Liaodong Peninsula. In the case of Shandong near Qingdao city, the Northern Theater Navy has an aircraft carrier, surface ships and SSB, SSBN. In the case of Liaodong, it is worth mentioning the deployment of the Fighter/ Ground Attack Brigade, a Missile Unit and a Navy base that hosts a flotilla of conventional submarines and warships.[7]

Xi Jinping pays huge attention also to the second sector of the Chinese coastline, which includes the stretch of shoreline parallel to the island of Taiwan, considered essential in conducting two different types of military operations in the East China Sea.

The first cataloguing of the mission advances the necessity to defend the Chinese shoreline sector (delimited to the north by the Shandong Peninsula and to the south by the Laizhou island territory) from possible maritime power projection operations launched by the United States, exploiting the bases located in South Korea and Japan.[8]

To carry out this type of defensive operation, Beijing believes it must exploit the coastal sector near Taipei as a hub to launch patrols or air-naval raids in the geo-maritime area between its coast and the first island chain. An example in support of this assertion can be considered the ambitious Chinese project of the amphibious invasion of Taiwan, whose realisation, however, requires the fulfilment of a necessary condition, namely the imposition by the PLA of a sea control localised in the waters close to the target, thus denying access to Taipei both to the U.S. Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, and to the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) deployed in the Japanese city of Sasebo.[9]

Beijing has created a unified command called Eastern Theater to implement the two categories of missions considered above, including the Eastern Theater Navy in Ningbo (including diesel-electric submarines, surface ships, and an amphibious assault group) an army command and a Missile Unit base. The latter includes the DF-16/21 mobile missile launch systems (which play a key role in ensuring coastal defence) and the DF-26 with sufficient range to hit the U.S. base in Guam[10].

Finally, in addition to the two sectors of the coast considered above, the Xi Jinping Presidency attaches particular importance to the southern side and the island of Hainan since they are indispensable for conducting military operations in the South China Sea.

The reasons for this Chinese geostrategic evaluation, as happened for the two sectors of coastline previously examined, can be traced back to the peculiar geographic structure, in this case, identifiable in the frontal position of the peninsula of Laizhou towards the island of Hainan, in its turn remarkable for its proximity to the archipelagos of the Paracelsus and the Spratlys.

This particular arrangement has led the PRC to establish two major bases of the People Liberation Army Navy within this geo-maritime space. The first one is Zhanjiang, located in the southern sector of the Laizhou Peninsula. It constitutes the command headquarters of the South Sea Fleet (comprising an aircraft carrier, surface ships, SSB and SSBN), protected by a system of the medium-range mobile missile batteries type HQ-9 SAM.[11]

In addition to the base of Zhanjiang, there is the outpost of Yulin built near the island of Hainan, which in addition to being a base for Jin-class nuclear submarines (SSBN), given its location close to the archipelagos Paracel and Spratly, guarantees Beijing to use it as an outpost for logistic support to the artificial islands built in the archipelagos Paracel and Spratly.

Conclusions

To sum up, Beijing’s geostrategic valorisation of its segment of the Asian coast represents an essential point to protect its interests within the central-south-western Asia-Pacific quadrant, mainly of an economic and military nature. The first is ascribed to the geo-economic importance of the geo-maritime space of the China Sea regarding the potential exploitation of energy resources and the control of trade flows through the East China Sea and the South China Sea, connecting the Chinese ports with the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Malacca and Suez trade routes.

This economic centrality has in part favoured the increase of the geostrategic importance of the China Sea, requiring Beijing to develop a military strategy that sees the coastline as an important area to operate in the waters of the ESC and SCS to protect its economic interests, which counter the U.S. policy of pivot to Asia considered by the President Xi Yining a severe threat to its national security, especially to the cities and civil and military infrastructure located along its coastline.[12]

In conclusion, it is possible to affirm that Beijing, valuing the conformation of its territory, believes that it is possible to obtain a strategic advantage towards the United States and its allies such as South Korea and Japan. This reflection can lead to thinking that in the years to come, the Chinese coastline will become increasingly crucial for Beijing in carrying out military operations near the areas of the China Sea considered of high geostrategic importance such as the straits of Taiwan, Miyako, Luzon, Malacca and the first island chain.

Sources

[1] Amighini. A, China Dream: Still Coming True?, Edizioni Epoké – ISPI, Novi Ligure, 2016.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Eric. H, The U.S.-China military scorecard: forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power, 1996-2017, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, Calif., 2015

[6] Rumer. E, Sokolsky. R and Vladicic. A Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Less Than Meets the Eye, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2020

[7] Department of Defense Military, and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 Annual Report to Congress, Office of the secretary defence, 2020

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Rossi R,(2021) The geostrategic importance of the Island of Guam in the U.S. policy of containment of Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific, Geopolitical Report, Vol. 14(1), SpecialEurasia. Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/12/01/geopolitics-guam-united-states/.

[11] Eric. H, The U.S.-China military scorecard: forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power, 1996-2017, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, Calif., 2015

[12] Ibid