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China employs ‘nuclear cabbage’ strategy for dominance in South China Sea

South China Sea is back in news, this time triggered by the most unlikely source. Vietnam has banned ‘Barbie’ movie over map of South China Sea and we are back to the realities of the real world and the South China Sea stand-off, which seemed to have not surfaced in the news for quite some time now.

Fiery Cross Island, home to a Chinese military base, is a small island in the South China Sea that has been reclaimed by China.

The island, along with six other Chinese military outposts, were erected on artificial islands in the South China Sea, which are rich in natural resources such as 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 10% of the world’s fisheries. The South China Sea is a significant body of water, and five nations now claim a portion of it.

The United States, the world’s sole superpower, has taken note of China’s presence in the South China Sea and has been defending international waterways with its vast fleet. China regards the US presence as an infringement on its territory and has used the “cabbage strategy” to construct artificial islands.

China’s plan entails encircling disputed islands with as many ships as possible, a tactic known as “the cabbage strategy.” This approach entails encircling contested islands with as many ships as possible, and China employs the cabbage technique to gradually take over contested territory.

The South China Sea tensions are rising, with nations detaining trespassers and threatening to impose an air identification zone over the South China Sea. The United States is presently in a difficult position: it does not want to risk triggering a fight with China, but it also wants China to cease pressuring its regional allies. 

Cut to today. Recently, according to a Xinhua story published on China Military Online, Xi Jinping, head of the Central Military Commission (CMC), issued an order recognising two outstanding military units and two people.

One of the units is the CMC equipment development department’s office, while the other is “a unit of Troop 92730 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)” that received first-class merit citations. According to a former PLA instructor quoted in a South China Morning Post (SCMP) investigation by Minnie Chan, the unit might be tied to the country’s nuclear technology.  

“We don’t know what the Sanya-based troop was honoured for, but previous official information suggests it could be some achievements related to the country’s nuclear submarine technology,” SCMP cites Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor.  

According to the SCMP, “recent commendations indicate Beijing’s emphasis on strategic deterrence, with its nuclear capability needing to be enhanced in both quality and quantity.” It is probable that Xi has tasked the PLA nuclear submarine unit with conducting strategic deterrent patrols in the South China Sea and abroad.

The US Department of Defence indicated in its 2022 report that China ‘likely launched near-continuous at-sea deterrent patrols’ in 2021.

SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) reads this as conducting periodic patrols with nuclear weapons onboard, but with care because it would be “a significant change to the country’s long-held practice of keeping nuclear warheads in central storage during peacetime,” according to SIPRI.  

China currently possesses six Type 094 submarines that can carry up to 12 three-stage, solid-fuelled Julang (JL) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) of two types: the JL-2 (CSS-N-14) and the JL-3 (CSS-N-20).

According to SIPRI, China has also began building of its next-generation SSBN, the Type 096, which has a bigger hull and is quieter than the Type 094 and may be outfitted with additional missile-launch tubes.

If the award to the equipment development department is tied to that of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) nuclear submarine unit, there is a potential of ties with nuclear weapons deployment aboard the sub – with or without matched warheads and ensured communication links.

However, the same may be an unrelated achievement for which the unit was rewarded, therefore there is some question that requires proof. Observing the relative developments in China’s nuclear capability and posture, The SIPRI projected in its annual report that China increased the number of warheads from 350 to 410 in the past year and expects ongoing expansion of nuclear warheads to equal the United States.

This comes even as Chinese government’s declared aim is to maintain minimum nuclear deterrent to safeguard national security, with the goal of ‘deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China’.

Nevertheless minimum is reasonably vague and undefined with the threshold expected to rise as China sees the nuclear competition with the vastly superior arsenal of the United States. Despite continuing increase in the sophistication and size of China’s nuclear arsenal, there is no official public evidence that the Chinese government has deviated from its long-standing core nuclear policies, including its No First Use policy as per the SIPRI.

According to the US Department of Defense’s 2022 assessment, China is adopting a ‘early warning counterstrike’ plan, which is similar to a ‘launch-on-warning’ (LOW) posture or a modified NFU. This requires some validation and may be rash.

Since the 1950s, nuclear power plants (NPPs) have primarily been used for propulsion in submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers. China has been the most promising prospect for an operating floating NPP since 2016.

China plans to build 20 floating nuclear power plants in the South China Sea by 2025. The primary issue was land scarcity on China-controlled islands making the civilian settlement development impossible with the military presence.

The new outposts solve the land scarcity problems, these floating NPPs will increase China’s military presence on these islands significantly. At least one partially completed project supported by the People’s Liberation Army demonstrates China’s military ambition in this direction.

Is this a message to the United States? Should this raise tensions? Tensions between the United States and China have risen in the last year or two, notably in relation to Taiwan, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in 2022. The PLA Air Force and PLA Navy make frequent incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone and the Taiwan Straits.

China has also been opposed to the United States’ Freedom of Navigation Operations in these seas. China’s aggressive wolf warrior diplomacy has signaled that the government will pursue the road of unification with Taiwan, while purposefully leaving the military option open. The expansion of the US strategic alliance in the area, as well as US IndoPacom military action, have recently irritated China.

The nuclear submarine patrol or the upgrade of sea-based deterrent, both indicative of the purpose for the award, may be a statement to the US of the boundaries to which China may go if pressed hard on Taiwan. The Pentagon Annual Report on PLA Capabilities will have to be awaited for an American assessment of the development.

China strengthening the artificial outposts with nuclear capabilities brings us to combine the ‘Nuclear deterrence strategy’ with  the ‘Cabbage Strategy’ making us coin the term ‘Nuclear Cabbage Strategy’. The world needs to be serious about it nonetheless, as it’s no laughing matter.


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