In case you were wondering, China can put warships off the coast of the U.S. mainland, just like the warships the U.S. can operate near China’s coast in the South China Sea. So there.
China has never done this before. Her navy’s expanding horizons have taken her, in the last few years, to South Asia, the Middle East (see here as well), the Mediterranean, Latin America, and finally – in the guise of a lightly-armed intelligence collection ship in 2013 – off the coast of Hawaii. But her operations in the Bering Sea, reported by the Pentagon on Wednesday, 2 September, mark the first time China’s navy has lurked off the coast of the U.S. mainland.
The statement from the Pentagon disclosed only that the Chinese task group consists of three surface combatants, an amphibious ship, and a replenishment ship. However, we can narrow that down by looking at the ships China deployed to her August naval exercise with Russia, which was held in the Sea of Japan starting on 17 August. The ships in the Bering Sea right now probably proceeded on from that exercise. (See map.)
According to Xinhua, these were the Chinese ships in the exercise:
The PLAN is sending seven ships — Type 051C Luzhou-class guided missile destroyer Shenyang (115), Russian-built Sovremennyy-class guided destroyer Taizhou (138), Type 54A Jiangkai II frigates Linyi (547) and Hengyang (568), Type 071 amphibious warship Changbaishan, Type 072A tank landing ship (LST) Yunwushan (997) and Type 903 fleet oiler Taihu.
It’s likely that the three surface combatants are the destroyers Shenyang and Taizhou, and one of the two frigates. The oiler Taihu may be the replenishment ship, or China may have sent another one to accompany the expedition to the Bering Sea.
The identity of the amphibious ship is probably the most interesting question. The Type 071 is China’s newer, upgraded amphibious command/assault ship, and my guess is that Changbaishan, the Type 071 deployed for the exercise, is the one with the task group in the Bering Sea. (In other words, it’s not the tank landing ship, Yunwushan.)
In 2010, China deployed a Type 071 abroad for the first time by sending it to conduct the antipiracy mission off Somalia. As a massive amphibious command and assault ship, the hull sent on that mission, Yunlunshan, was ill-suited to the naval task. But a Type 071 can project a lot of power ashore, and has significant command and control capabilities.
In China’s navy, the Type 071 performs a role similar to that filled by the U.S. Navy’s Wasp- and Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships, from which amphibious operations are commanded and attack aircraft are launched. On occasions since 2010, China has deployed Type 071 hulls again, and performed command duties for the multilateral antipiracy effort. Doing this has had the effect of conditioning other nations to the far-flung deployment of a key Chinese power-projection platform. It has also given China the opportunity to practice command and control of major operations from the Type 071.
It would thus fit China’s developing pattern for the command element of the task group in the Bering Sea to be on the Type 071, Changbaishan, that deployed for the exercise with Russia.
It is not a coincidence either that the Type 071 is China’s largest and most imposing warship, next to the Russian-built aircraft carrier Liaoning. Liaoning isn’t quite ready for prime time (i.e., operations across great distances). But China has been successfully operating the Type 071 class at great distances for more than five years now, and would be confident in sending credible signals with it.
As for the armament of the destroyers and frigate, the Type 051C destroyer, Shenyang, would be equipped with YJ-83 (C-803) anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), with a range of about 110 statute miles (90 nautical miles) and some potential application against targets ashore. The Jiangkai II frigates also carry the C-803 ASCM system.
The Russian-made Sovremennyy destroyer has supersonic SS-N-22 “Sunburn” ASCMs, which reportedly have had their range extended by the Chinese to as much as 150 statute miles (120 nautical miles).
That’s in addition to the usual complement of anti-air missiles and guns on each ship (and of course torpedoes for underwater warfare). Each ship can embark a helicopter, which will be equipped with guns and may have anti-ship missiles or rockets. For a deployment like this one, we can assume the ships are carrying helicopters.
(Is there a submarine with the task group? It’s possible. No submarine deployment was announced for the exercise with Russia, but submarine participation wouldn’t necessarily be advertised. From out here in the cheap seats, we can’t be sure.)
All that said, this isn’t “about” whether China can attack the U.S. effectively with this task group. We can’t conclude, because an attack would be foolish and overmatched, that the deployment itself doesn’t matter. Of course it matters.
It matters that China has been emboldened, for the first time ever, to do it.
It matters that China is doing it at the same time as the huge, long-planned military parade held (today, 3 September) to commemorate victory in World War II – a parade in which Beijing is showing off a number of China’s most modern weapon systems, including the DF-21D “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile.
To clarify China’s intentions about sending signals with these displays, see this note by U.S. Naval War College Professor Andrew Erickson about the victory parade:
All the major missiles were labeled with their English abbreviations in big white letters, likely to help guarantee that their presence isn’t lost on foreigners.
That wouldn’t be at all pointed.
It matters that China has chosen to perform this deployment in conjunction with the biggest naval exercise ever held between China and Russia. And it probably even matters that the Chinese task group is in the Bering Sea, off of Alaska, during Obama’s trip to the state to highlight “climate change,” record an episode of the reality show Bear Grylls, and bust moves.
Does it matter that the United States puts warships in the South China Sea when China is building artificial islands there, and extending her unrecognized claims of “sovereignty” over international waters and the maritime areas claimed by other nations? Does it matter even though the U.S. certainly couldn’t use those warships effectively to attack China, and would be extremely foolish to try?
Yes. That’s why it matters that China is putting a naval task group in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska. China has just ratcheted up, in a big way, her project to extend “sovereignty” over the South China Sea beyond anything recognized by international convention. The task group deployment to the Bering Sea is the opening salvo in a new level of challenge to the U.S. Navy’s dominance of the world’s oceans. It won’t end with this one symmetric jab. Indeed, its development at the new level of confrontation is just beginning.