China is very busy building islands in the South China Sea. I have been reading some interesting articles on why they are doing this. At first glance it looks like they are trying to assert territorial claims in the region and what better way than to build an island, then you can say it is your land. There is no doubt this is one way to do that, but some say there is something else going on. They claim the Chinese government may feel it is losing the support of too many of its citizens, so it wants to drum up nationalistic feeling by taking on countries like Japan, Vietnam and others. It is felt the people will rally behind their own country and this is why China is being so vocal in its defense of the premise of the area around certain islands is theirs and certain parts of the sea belong to China. It is known China has a history of some of its citizens wanting a more democratic government. This was evidenced by the uprising which spilled over into Tiananmen Square in 1989. Martial law was ordered at the time to put these uprising down. There are still a lot of Chinese citizens who are not happy with their government, but I have to admit this is true in many countries and even our own has its detractors.
The Chinese want to protect their claim so they need to have some sort of force available to deter those who are trying to assert their claims and who also want to travel into the waters claimed by the Chinese while not adhering to the rules the Chinese have set up, such as notifying them when you want to travel there. The problem is countries feel if you do this, you are admitting the Chinese claim is valid. The area China is claiming is so vast its fighter planes cannot carry enough fuel for any extended presence over the area. Even their most modern fighter the J-11D can only stay over the area for a short time. The Chinese have several options to combat this. The first one which comes to mind is their aircraft carrier. In 2012 the Chinese commissioned the Liaoning. They had purchased four aircraft carriers in 1985 so they could study them with the intent of building their own. They purchased one from Australia, the Melbourne and three from the former Soviet Union. They were the Minsk, Kiev and Varyag. Two were old and had been retired but the Varyag was partially built.
They poured everything they learned into creating a new carrier, but it was not built from scratch. The Varyag was stripped and rebuilt to Chinese specifications and this is the ship which became the Liaoning. The Chinese could station this ship and its planes in the middle of the disputed area and use the planes to warn off any intruders or those who do not comply with Chinese rules. One of the problems with doing this is the United States routinely goes through this area to assert its right to travel in international waters. Would the Chinese be risking a war with the United States if they place their carrier there? There is another choice. They could place planes on the islands. This would mean they would need full landing strips and maintenance facilities for the planes. This might not yet be practical since the islands are under construction, but might be a viable choice in the future. Ships could be used instead of planes, but if they are they may be too slow to get to other ships which are traveling through the area.
There is still another choice here. The Russians have offered to sell the Chinese their new SU-35 fighters. The Chinese have a long history of buying only a few Russian and Soviet planes and copying them. This does not make the Russians happy. They do all the design work and the Chinese reap all the benefits. It sort of reminds me of what happened to us when we developed the atom and hydrogen bombs. It wasn’t very long before the Soviets stole our secrets and built their own. Originally the Russians wanted the Chinese to guarantee a purchase of 48 of these planes before they would sell them to China. Lately the Russians have become a little more desperate and have cut the minimum purchase to 24 planes. The negotiations have been going on for a few years. The Chinese want the SU-35 because it has a longer range and advanced electronics making it more suitable for the task of patrolling the area claimed by China. I find it interesting the plane which is made by Sukhoi is names the SU-35 and was meant to counter the F-35. This seems more than a coincidence. Unfortunately for us many experts claim the SU-35 is superior to our F-35, being more maneuverable, faster in level flight and faster in climbing. When the Russians sold the SU-27 to the Chinese they immediately went about copying it and as a matter of fact the new Chinese J-11D has its roots in the SU-27. The Chinese feel the SU-35 is more than a match for not only the American F-35 but also the Indian SU-30MKO and T-50 aircraft. There is no doubt the Russians still build some incredible planes. The SU-35 is being refitted by the Russians to make it even more formidable under Russia’s fifth generation program the T-50 PAK-FA. It is not clear if the planes which may be sold to China will have these improvements.
Will all this be enough for China to ultimately enforce what it believes is its rights in the area? I would not be too sure about that. The neighboring countries which also assert rights or at least feel the area is international waters have a long history of just not sitting back and being victims. Vietnam feels China is conducting oil exploration in their coastal waters. There are several groups of islands in the South China Sea. The Paracel Islands are occupied by China, but are claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The Pratas Islands are also known as the Dongsha Islands. They are claimed by China, but controlled by Taiwan. Pratas Island is the largest island in the South China Sea. The Scarborough Shoal has many names. It is also known as the Democracy Reef, Huangyan Island, Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal. It is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Spratly Islands lie between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. They are composed of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands. Forty-five of these reefs and islands and other areas contain structures and these structures are occupied by the military from China, Taiwan, Vietnam the Philippines and Malaysia. Brunei also has a claim but not an occupying force.
It would be easy for a conflict to break out in this area and add to this the animosity between China and Taiwan which the Chinese feel is part of their country and you can see what a tinderbox the area is.