Airborne Assault to Occupy South China Sea Features?

A Xian Y-20 belonging to the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Courtesy of L G Liao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The recent deployment of 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft near Malaysian airspace may hint at a new tactic for China to assert its claims over the South China Sea.

On 31 May 2021, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) flew squadron-sized multi-role strategic airlifters, consisting of Ilyushin Il-76 and Xian Y-20 aircraft, over Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone waters and the South Luconia Shoals (Beting Pattingi Ali), and reached about 60 miles off Sarawak’s coast. After repeated requests by air controllers for identification and the purpose of the PLAAF flight went unanswered, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) scrambled Hawk 208 light fighter jets to intercept, which resulted in the PLAAF formation turning back. According to the RMAF, the PLAAF aircraft flew in tactical formation over the maritime waters that are claimed by China as part of its ‘nine-dash line’ contention over the South China Sea.

The real intention of this flight is not known, but it may indicate that China could also be planning to assert its South China Sea claims by using air power.

Shrewdness and Stealth

For years, China has been using surface maritime means to enforce its claims; coastguard vessels, fishing boats, armed maritime militia and even mobile oil rigs have been deployed for this purpose. Furthermore, Beijing has been consistently showing its inventiveness in asserting its maritime claims as demonstrated in 2014, when China placed a mobile oil rig near the Paracel Islands, sparking a tense standoff with Vietnam. This was followed by the establishment of ‘fishermen outposts’ in reefs/islands in international waters off the South China Sea – another Chinese ‘innovation’.

China also covertly built an artificial island complete with a large airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef in 2015. This artificial construct now hosts radars, sensors, and possibly air defence systems and land-based anti-ship missiles. However, because such aggressive island-grabbing operations have gained substantial attention, similar operations have become more difficult to conduct, if only because other South China Sea littoral states are more vigilant to these threats. For example, in early March this year, a large armada of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats docked on Whitsun Reef (also known as the Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines) close to the western Philippine province of Palawan in the South China Sea. This latest action by China has resulted in vigorous protests and demarches from the Philippines government, including sending South Korean-made FA-50 light combat aircraft to watch these fishing boats. The docked fishing boats subsequently dispersed but remained in Philippines-claimed waters. The state’s vocal response demonstrated that China’s assertive maritime operations are now frequently met with strong resistance. At the very least, they create enough opposition so as to attract more attention than Beijing had bargained for.

A Change of Tactics?

The close monitoring of China’s tactic of using surface maritime operations has made it increasingly difficult to assert claims in this manner, and may have precipitated its potential use of airpower to assert its claims and airborne operations to occupy South China Sea features.

China has been actively using its air assets to monitor and occasionally probe other regional competitors’ air spaces. For example, Japan – which claimed the Senkaku Islands together with China – has seen a surge in daily military overflights in this area since 2012, when it bought three of the islands from their private owner. A year later, China declared an East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) stretching from the East China Sea to the Senkaku Islands which overlapped with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea’s ADIZs. Increasingly larger groups of Chinese aircraft – sometimes consisting of a mixture of H-6K strategic bombers, Tu-154 electronic warfare aircraft, Sukhoi SU-30 and Shenyang J-11 fighter aircraft – overflew the Senkaku Islands regularly in multiple simultaneous routes. The Japan Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) regularly deploy their fighters to intercept Chinese flights as it is Japan’s policy to demonstrate its strong resolve in challenging China’s assertion. For example, in 2019, Chinese military aircraft flew near the Senkakus 675 times. They were intercepted by JASDF aircraft each time.

More recently, the PLAAF has been flying within the Taiwanese ADIZ on an almost daily basis. Since last year, the PLAAF has sent aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ nearly every day and regularly crossed the median line, buzzing Taiwan’s air defence systems. From January to October 2020, the Taiwanese air force (Republic of China Air Force, ROCAF) has scrambled its fighters 2,972 times to intercept PLAAF aircraft in this area. By late March this year, the cost of scrambling fighters had finally taken its toll on Taiwanese resources (it cost Taiwan approximately US$1 billion, or 9% of its defence budget, in 2020). The ROCAF has now decided not to scramble its aircraft every time PLAAF aircraft enter the ADIZ – instead, it will use its radars and air defence missile systems to track them.

China has not lowered the tempo of these near-daily flights. On 12 April, the PLAAF conducted its largest overflight to date with 25 aircraft, which included 14 Shenyang J-16 strike fighters, four Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter planes and four Xian H-6 strategic bombers.

These recent Chinese aerial activities may indicate the probable logic behind the recent PLAAF flight near Malaysian airspace.

First, China may be trying to probe Malaysia’s air defence and its political responses. China may announce that its aircraft were flying in international airspace, and since Malaysia has responded with combat aircraft interceptions it may unilaterally declare its own South China Sea ADIZ to protect its right to monitor the airspace. This would augment Chinese claims across the South China Sea by controlling its airspace.

Second, China may be testing the possibility of conducting airborne operations as a new innovative tactic to assert its claim. For example, in a hypothetical case, China could use its military aircraft to transport para-marines and equipment in a large coordinated airborne assault operation to occupy multiple uninhabited South China Sea features (such as islands, rocks or reefs) simultaneously. It may then undertake fast building of platforms, structures and foundations on these features, supported by fleets of surface vessels.

The recent PLAAF flight near Malaysian airspace indicated the potential risks of China utilising its air power to claim the South China Sea. While there is a lot of attention on countering Chinese maritime surface tactics – such as using coastguard vessels, fishermen and militia (also known as ‘greyzone tactics’) – the tempting prospect of using the air dimension to gain effective control over the South China Sea should not be dismissed. Other littoral claimant states and major powers subscribing to the international rules-based order in the South China Sea should take grave note.

Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies at the National Defence University of Malaysia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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