Learned Helplessness: China’s Military Instrument and Southeast Asian Security
Zachary Abuza and Cynthia Watson examine developments in the PLA’s Southern Theater Command and argue that Southeast Asia is the primary laboratory for the development of the PLA’s joint forces and doctrine.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has developed a sophisticated toolbox to advance its national interest. The country’s growing and multifaceted military instrument is meant to signal, compel, deter, and engage in joint-kinetic operations. But most of all, it is meant to awe regional states into acquiescing to Chinese interests, values, and interpretations of international law. In short, it aims to reinforce a notion of learned helplessness.
Xi Jinping pledged at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2021 not to seek dominance in Southeast Asia, saying that “China resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbors and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small.” Yet, China is operationalizing its doctrine of unrestricted warfare in the region, meaning that “any methods can be prepared for use, information is everywhere, the battlefield is everywhere, and that any technology might be combined with any other technology,” as well as that “the boundaries between war and non-war and between military and non-military affairs have systematically broken down.”
China is unlikely to escalate a conflict against Japan in the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) or use force against Taiwan without having engaged in any recent kinetic military operations. Anything short of a clear-cut, decisive victory would be a political disaster for the Chinese leadership, undermining its legitimacy. That is what makes the PRC’s military modernization and force posture in Southeast Asia so important. Southeast Asian adversaries give China the opportunity to engage in kinetic operations against much weaker adversaries farther from its shores and in situations that, should things not go well, would be much easier to quickly de-escalate, away from the prying eyes of its nationalistic netizens.
THE SOUTHERN THEATER COMMAND: THE TEST LAB OF JOINT OPERATIONS
In February 2016, China reorganized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), moving from inwardly focused military regions to new theater commands that are being trained, armed, and equipped to engage in joint operations against specific external contingencies. The Southern Theater Command is responsible for all contingency operations in Southeast Asia, including the entire South China Sea.
Within this command, the PLA has deployed two group armies (the 41st and 42nd, mainly along the border with Vietnam); one of its three naval fleets, which includes three submarine flotillas (eighteen submarines in total) and two destroyer flotillas (with eleven destroyers and nineteen frigates); three naval aviation divisions; two marine brigades; three air force bomber divisions and eleven fighter or ground-attack brigades; and four PLA Rocket Force brigades with conventional missiles (see Figure 1). The PLA Air Force and PLA Naval Air Force are both deployed with a compliment of long-range anti-ship missiles. The Southern Theater also commands “all CCG [China Coast Guard] and maritime militia ships conducting operations within China’s claimed ‘nine-dash line.’”
The PLA Navy’s Southern Fleet “continues to receive a higher proportion of advanced warships such as the Type 052D guided missile destroyer Yinchuan.” No other theater command has a larger naval component, including the Eastern Theater Command that is responsible for the liberation of Taiwan or operations in the Senkaku Islands.
Moreover, analysts have noted that the Southern Theater Command is the primary lab of joint operations and possesses new command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. China is persistently willing to use its array of instruments to advance its interests. This willingness to pronounce its concerns and then deploy the military in a deterrence manner results from repeated coordinated deployments of multiple approaches to addressing its concerns. The following discussion examines developments in several key areas.
The militarization of features in the South China Sea. Despite Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge not to militarize the six manmade islands in the South China Sea, China has maintained a significant presence to deny forcibly the exploitation of natural resources by other claimants and possesses significant ISR capabilities. No regional country matches China’s maritime domain awareness, ranging from over-the-horizon radars, coastal radar, signals intelligence capabilities, and line-of-sight capabilities. In addition, it has deployed a range of electronic warfare capabilities.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea has been increasing, including the apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles. HQ-9Bs, for example, are already deployed in the Paracel Islands. China has deployed YJ-12B land-based anti-ship missiles, which have a range of nearly three hundred miles. Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs also have 10,000-meter runways. Although no planes are permanently deployed, the hangers, fuel, and ammo depots are all in place. In Subi and Mischief Reefs, the PLA has begun to base special mission aircraft, including KJ-500 electronic warfare aircraft and Z-8 helicopters. The PLA has also deployed KQ-200 antisubmarine warfare planes to Fiery Cross Reef.
In the Spratly Islands, China has begun deploying Type-22 missile craft. These small fast-attack craft were originally designed for brown water coastal defense, but the all-weather ports on China’s manmade islands allow the PLA Navy to use them in an offshore capacity. The craft are cheap to operate and already plentiful, with roughly 60 in the fleet. In short, they give the PLA Navy added presence at almost no cost.
The deployment of planes enables China to quickly attack anywhere in Southeast Asia. While its aerial refueling capabilities are not excellent, the islands offer the ability for ground refueling.
The most thorough open-source study of the military capabilities, by J. Michael Dahm, contends that despite the massive buildup of military assets, the main purpose of the manmade islands is not kinetic warfighting but to establish dominance in the information space. Their numbers, size, and hardened features mean that the United States would have to dedicate significant assets in a scenario involving armed conflict to render the islands ineffective for combat. No Southeast Asian country alone possesses the independent capabilities to do so.
China’s 2021 Coast Guard Law gives the CCG the ability to fire on ships and demolish structures on Chinese-claimed features. The coast guard is part of the PLA’s chain of command, ostensibly under the People’s Armed Police. Its sheer size gives the CCG an almost permanent presence in the most contested areas, such as Scarborough Shoal, Luconia Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, Vanguard Bank, and the Kasawari gas field.
Missiles. While China’s maritime capabilities have garnered the most attention, the PLA Rocket Force also poses an increasing threat. The Southern Theater Command has nine separate units of short- and medium-range missiles. Several of the PLA Rocket Force units that are deployed in the command are equipped with the core of China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities, the DF-21 long-range anti-ship missiles (known as “carrier killers”). To date, there is no open-source reporting that China’s DF-21 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), with a range of 3,000–4,000 kilometers, is deployed to the Southern Theater Command. Likewise, there have been no open-source reporting that China’s new precision IRBM (DF-26) or its anti-ship variant (DF-26B) has been deployed to Southeast Asia, though two DF-16Bs were successfully tested against a moving ship in the South China Sea in 2020. The PLA Rocket Force is building a large missile base on Hainan Island and has not been shy about announcing its anti-ship missile tests.
As mentioned above, China has likely deployed HQ-9B SAMS and J-12B land-based anti-ship missiles to the Paracel Islands. They have ranges of 160 and 300 nautical miles, respectively. The maritime version of the H-6J long-range strategic bomber, which is based in the Southern Theater Command, is armed with YJ-12 anti-ship missiles.
Submarines and autonomous underwater vehicles. China’s three submarine flotillas, comprising eighteen ships in total, pose different challenges for Southeast Asia. China has developed a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of 6,000 miles for its nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of a rapid increase in the size of its strategic force. This marks a deviation from China’s traditional “minimum deterrent” posture. As Chinese strategists think that conflict with the United States is more inevitable, such a survivable second-strike capability is even more important. One of China’s two fleets of SLBMs is based in Hainan, and the bunkering of submarines in the deep waters of the South China Sea is key to the country’s second-strike capability.
China’s growing fleet of attack submarines has the ability to wreak havoc on Southeast Asian navies and commercial vessels in the region, as there is a dearth of antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Submarines have the added advantage of attribution, which could be very useful for China to send signals, without accepting responsibility and creating a ladder of de-escalation.
China dispatched a submarine rescue ship to help Indonesia following the tragic loss of a submarine and its entire 53-person crew. Although the salvage efforts failed, largely due to the depths at which the submarine had sunk, the operation was diplomatically effective, especially as China footed the entire bill, and provided an occasion for the use of the military instrument in a constructive and nonthreatening manner.
Chinese Sea Wing (Haiyi) autonomous underwater vehicles have been recovered now twice in Indonesian waters, which is a clear violation of Indonesia’s territorial sea. China has been developing a range of undersea unmanned systems of various sizes, ranges, purposes, and capabilities, including mine warfare and countermeasures, undersea cable inspection and tapping, and antisubmarine warfare.
Overseas bases. China’s 2019 defense white paper declared the need to develop more overseas basing facilities. China already has a naval base in Djibouti, and a second base is under construction in Tajikistan along the Wakan corridor. Earlier this year, China signed an agreement with the Solomon Islands that would give the PLA Navy a base in the center of the Pacific.
Within Southeast Asia, China already has an offshore signals intelligence facility on an island in the Andaman Sea controlled by Myanmar. But its first major military hub in the region will likely be in Cambodia. China dominates the short Cambodian coastline, wedged between Thailand’s Sattahip Naval Base, near Rayong in the Gulf of Thailand, and the An Thoi Naval and Coast Guard Base on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island. With much of the area under a 99-year lease, China built and operates the commercial port in Sihanoukville, which is the only deepwater port in Cambodia.
The Cambodian navy demolished two buildings that the United States had built for it at the Ream Naval Base. A two-acre Chinese section of the base is now being developed, under a 30-year lease enabling China to “post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.” China is also building a military-grade airfield in nearby Dara Sakor. The 10,000-meter runway, as yet, has no commercial facilities; indeed Sihanoukville already has a commercial airport with excess capacity. There is also some evidence, including open-source commercial satellite imagery, that China has begun building a permanent naval base on the coast. Chinese dredgers are already present and operational.
In sum, China will have key ISR assets in place to monitor movements in and out of Thai and Vietnamese naval facilities, giving it maritime domain awareness over the Gulf of Thailand.
The growing military threat that China poses to Southeast Asia is not yet reflected in the region’s arms purchases. Instead, China has become a major arms exporter to Southeast Asia, largely competing with Russia and significantly displacing the United States.
Cambodia is completely dependent on Chinese arms, ammunition, and other defense subsidies. It is worth noting that China pays in large part for the educational training of the annual class of two hundred officers, including six-month field visits to China. PLA officers are advisers to the school. Indeed, the ties between the Cambodian and Chinese armed forces are so deep that Cambodian students lost their six slots to U.S. service academies in mid-2021.
However, the country that has become the most dependent on Chinese arms is Thailand. The reality is that despite a long and fruitful alliance (largely focused on Chinese aggression and Chinese support of Communist insurgencies), the United States and Thailand now have almost no shared threat perception. Indeed, the only thing that the military regime cares about is its own survival. To that end, Thai leaders have largely thrown their lot in with China.
In 2017, Thailand negotiated a $408 million deal for an S26T submarine, an export version of China’s Type 039A (Yuan class), with an option to buy two more.n 2020, the Royal Thai Navy announced its intentions to exercise that right and proceed with the purchase of two additional submarines, prompting a public outcry that forced the navy to suspend its plans. In July 2021, the parliament rejected the purchase. In 2022, the deal appeared to sink after Germany prevented the export of MTU396 diesel engines. When China offered to use indigenously built engines for the submarines, Thailand initially rejected the notoriously loud engines and demanded that the original contract be honored. China has also offered to sell two used Song-class submarines instead, an offer that was again rejected by Thailand. At the time of writing in August 2022, Thailand appears to have acquiesced to Beijing’s pressure and agreed to move ahead with the Chinese engines.
Thailand has purchased several naval vessels from China, including an amphibious landing ship. Thailand has also purchased armored personnel carriers and new main battle tanks. Indeed, there is now enough Chinese hardware in Thailand that China is building a maintenance facility. In sum, China has surpassed the United States to become Thailand’s largest weapons supplier. While Thai authorities may fear that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, it could be too late to reverse the trend.
Malaysia recently purchased four offshore naval patrol vessels from China, to defend territorial waters from Chinese encroachment. In the Philippines, the U.S. government has provided billions of dollars in assistance to the military since September 11, including planes and drones for basic ISR capabilities. Yet the Philippines exemplifies the strategic impact of China donating a small number of weapons in a timely manner. Just over a year after being elected, President Rodrigo Duterte announced, while visiting China, his intentions to end the alliance with the United States, catching everyone off guard. Though he did not follow through, China was quick to move. In May 2017, pro–Islamic State militants took over the city of Marawi and held off the U.S.-trained armed forces of the Philippines for five months. China delivered a consignment of 6,100 small arms during the siege, and Duterte himself was on hand to receive them, calling their provision “critical.”
In Myanmar, the junta will be increasingly dependent on China as the regime becomes more diplomatically isolated and the country teeters on the brink of economic collapse. China will be a lifeline for the generals and a vital source of weaponry. Myanmar has historically depended on Russia for arms. Yet, given the totality of Russia’s losses in Ukraine, exports of new equipment and spare parts to second- and third-tier clients like Myanmar will be low priority for Moscow. Thus, China is likely to pick up some of the slack in the region.
Arms sales are an important indicator of interoperability and a sign of stability in an alliance or partnership. Alongside increasing arms sales to Southeast Asia, China has stepped up bilateral military exercises in the region. For example, the Royal Thai Armed Forces now hold more exercises with their PLA counterparts than with any other regional country, including recent air exercises at a time when Bangkok is hoping to procure the F-35 from the United States. Likewise, the PLA Navy held joint exercises with the Indonesian Navy in mid-2021, and the PLA has held at least three army exercises with the Cambodian military. Although joint exercises have clearly slowed down during the pandemic, they are likely to resume.
Conversely, even after Singapore and China inked their first defense agreement in 2008, security relations remain limited. China is keen to curtail Singapore’s routine military exercises in Taiwan and has demonstrated a willingness to violate international law to send clear signals. In 2016, for example, it seized nine Singaporean armored personnel carriers in Hong Kong that were in transit from Taiwan. That incident alone hampered bilateral exercises for several years. Nonetheless, China and Singapore signed the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation in 2019, and Singapore’s navy held its first joint exercises in five years with the PLA Navy in January 2021.
In sum, while the pandemic set back China’s growing number of bilateral military exercises in Southeast Asia, Beijing’s intention of supplanting the United States is clear.
CONCLUSION: HOW MIGHT CHINA USE FORCE?
Although China has not fought a war since 1979, we have some understanding of how the PLA would employ force in a military conflict. This was most evident in the recent Taiwan Strait crisis. First, its force structure, logistics, and doctrine are ill prepared for a protracted conflict. Any war would need to be quickly executed. China’s objective would be to declare victory after humiliating its adversary and then to de-escalate the situation, offering its adversary a “golden bridge.”
Second, military force would be part and parcel of a larger whole-of-government approach that involves economic, diplomatic, and legal pressure. China would employ “unrestricted warfare” and fight across multiple domains, especially cyber.
Third, much of how China uses force would simply be to signal its intentions and capabilities, such as with the missile tests during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Any show of force would be overwhelming to explicitly highlight power disparities between China and its adversaries. Force would be used to cause immediate economic harm and signal resolve, though in such a way that any conflict could be de-escalated very quickly. The goal would be to create a sense of learned helplessness.
The air incursion over Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in May 2021 is a case in point. China sent a formation of sixteen bombers and large transport planes toward Malaysia’s Sarawak State, passing right over a contested region in the South China Sea at Luconia Shoals where Malaysia’s state-owned oil company, Petronas, has defied Chinese intimidation and drilled for offshore oil. Indeed, Petronas was preparing to start drilling in another area, despite the near constant presence of the CCG. The PLA Air Force planes never entered Malaysian airspace. What they did was lawful, even though the act violated China’s own interpretation of international law. Other Southeast Asian states took note and made clear that they did not want the same thing to happen to them.
In many situations, however, an overwhelming show of force may not be sufficient, especially against a highly motivated opponent. Should China seek a relatively controlled conflict, it would likely be some sort of manufactured crisis against a Vietnamese-held feature in the Spratly Islands. While another full invasion and occupation is less likely, a Chinese operation to block the resupply of a Vietnamese-held feature would serve many Chinese interests.
First, a feature in the Spratly Islands would be a controlled environment for the PLA to test its joint warfighting capability, offshore logistical support, and communications, command, control, and intelligence capabilities. Second, China could control the information environment, being far enough away from the prying eyes of its netizens, in case the situation does not go well. Third, Beijing would have the ability to largely control the escalatory ladder and give Hanoi an offramp. Fourth, China would use the conflict as an opportunity to target Vietnam through concerted cyberattacks. Fifth, a series of manufactured smaller conflicts would be an important gauge of the international community’s response and help the PLA prepare for a large conflict with Taiwan.
In conclusion, China employs its military instrument in a manner that signals its disproportionate capabilities and intentions and in ways that awe regional states into acquiescing to Chinese interests, values, and interpretations of international law. Southeast Asia remains the PLA’s primary laboratory for the development of its joint forces and doctrine, which are then orchestrated with an array of other instruments of statecraft. As such, Beijing aims to reinforce a notion of learned helplessness, without actually engaging in open-ended kinetic operations.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
Cynthia Watson was a professor and dean at the National War College, before serving as the acting provost of the National Defense University prior to her retirement.
The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College, the National Defense University, or the U.S. Department of Defense.
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