China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

The messaging behind China’s Alaskan excursion is multifaceted, but much more obvious than the adorably naïve comments from some American observers would suggest. To see why, we need to examine the composition of the flotilla, the exact plot it took through the Aleutian Islands and the timing of the mission.

Reports indicate that the flotilla consisted of three surface combatants escorting an amphibious assault ship, a fleet oiler and possibly a tank landing ship. The three line ships included a type 051C Luzhou-class guided missile destroyer, a Type 54A Jiangki II -class frigate, and a particularly lethal Russian-built Sovremennyy-class destroyer. Taken together, these three ships would pose a major threat to any hostile vessel and would constitute a multi-layered air defense in-depth. Most notable, however, was the presence of the 20,000-ton Changbai Shan, a legitimate power projection platform capable of hosting up to 800 marines, a dozen armored vehicles and 2-4 helicopters (Video of the Changbai Shan entering Portsmouth).

In other words, the PLAN flotilla contained enough military power to project, defend and sustain a reinforced battalion of Chinese marines in amphibious operations. These were not the survey vessels that navies often use for freedom of navigation exercises and diplomatic needling, nor were they the paramilitary-style coast guard ships that China uses to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea. This was a blue water expeditionary force. When ships like these trawl unannounced through your territorial waters, it means something.

What it means is further clarified by the course of the ships. Apparently, the ships entered the Bering Sea at the extreme western end of the Aleutian chain, through the 200-mile wide strait that separates Attu Island from Russian-controlled Ostrov Mednyy. After operating in the Bering Sea for several days they headed south and passed through the Aleutians to the east of Attu, at which point they came within 12 miles of U.S. territory, intruding into sovereign American waters. Attu is 350 square miles of mountains, ice and tundra. Though it was the site of a vicious battle between the U.S. and Japan in 1943, it has been uninhabited since 2010 when the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned a LORAN station on the island.

So why does it matter that China was pleasure sailing through such a desolate region? Maybe because a critical U.S. Air Force station is right next door.

Shemya Island

Shemya Island

This is Shemya Island, located 27 miles east of Attu. Since 1943 it has hosted one of the most remote and inhospitable U.S. military air bases in the world, currently known as Eareckson Air Station. Originating as a bomber base to attack northern Japan during World War II, it became a critical intelligence gathering and early warning radar facility during the Cold War. About 15 years ago it was examined as a potential site for an X-band radar in support of the national missile defense system. These days, the runway at Eareckson does not see much activity, but it remains an operational airfield and an important emergency landing site along the northern extreme of the great circle route for air travel between North America and Asia. As recently as July 29 a Cathay Pacific flight made an emergency landing on Shemya.

Most importantly, Shemya is home of the COBRA DANE radar system, which since 1976 has been gathering telemetry from Soviet/Russian missile tests, conducting space surveillance and providing early warning of ballistic missile attacks against the continental United States.

Shemya is also completely undefended, and is staffed primarily by contractors.

To my knowledge, none of the media coverage of China’s Alaskan foray contained any mention of Shemya. Commentary in the Alaska Dispatch News even criticized larger newspapers for not emphasizing the vast size of Alaska and the remote location of the intrusion, as if the incident is even less newsworthy than the already blithe and dismissive coverage offered by the larger outlets. And yet, this very same columnist reveals that he can’t see the forest for the trees:

By not making it clear that the Aleutians extend more than 1,000 miles from Unimak Island to Attu Island, it was like saying that something happened in the Pacific Ocean between Juneau and Seattle. One of the reporters who wrote about this topic told me the unnamed U.S. military sources who spoke about this were “foggy” on what they chose to reveal concerning the location of the incident.

I wonder why they were being “foggy” about that particular data point…

That the PLAN deliberately sailed past Shemya is not in doubt. The flotilla could have easily returned home via international waters through the large strait west of Attu, or even through the 70-mile strait that separates Shemya from Buldir Island to the east. However, transiting U.S. waters “to the east of Attu” means that the group either passed between Attu and Shemya or between Shemya and Buldir, but close enough to enter within 12 nautical miles of the former.

Finally, consider the timing of the episode, which coincided with President Obama’s visit to Alaska and the communist military pageantry of the Victory Day celebrations in Beijing. China used this propitious timing to amplify its intended message. President Obama made a point of avoiding China during the extravaganza, but thanks to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he could not quite escape it completely.

So what was China’s message? In short, it was demonstrating its ability to project power against sovereign U.S. territory, namely Shemya Island. The capture of Shemya would have three immediate, tangible strategic effects: (1) deny the U.S. access to the Arctic Ocean; (2) severely inhibit intercontinental air travel between North America and Asia, especially by strategic bombers; (3) significantly degrade U.S. space surveillance and early warning radar capabilities. The relevance of these strategic effects during a U.S.-China conflict should be obvious.

Before dismissing this scenario as outlandish, consider that Shemya could be seized by a single helicopter transporting one squad of armed personnel. The U.S. Navy rarely operates in the Bering Sea and though the Air Force has a significant presence in Alaska, I challenge anyone to ask an Air Force official about their capacity to attack hostile ships with land-based tactical aircraft. If you get more than a befuddled stare in response, please let me know.

The loss of Shemya would force the U.S. to bomb its own air base to neutralize enemy flight operations (though the region’s atrocious weather would make these difficult), and then re-learn how to conduct amphibious assaults against fortified island terrain. How many months would this take, and what else would be transpiring in Taiwan or the South China Sea during this time? How many resources, diverted to the Aleutians, would be unavailable in the principle theaters further south? Following the loss of Shemya, would the U.S. still consider the defense of its Asian allies a strategic priority, or would it be more concerned with retaking its own territory? Shemya would thus constitute a strategic military asset, a diversion and a bargaining chip.

American commentators were correct that this was a signaling exercise. Beijing was simultaneously demonstrating its capability and warning the U.S. about the consequences of interfering with its territorial ambitions elsewhere along the east Asian littoral. However, as I will discuss in my next post, the U.S. didn’t quite get the message.

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