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June 26, 2017

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Vietnam prepares to better protect its S. China Sea claims

SINGAPORE -- Vietnam is taking a page from China's strategic playbook to better protect its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. Observers have long understood that the cross-Taiwan Strait military balance would begin tipping in China's favor around now, and that Beijing is pursuing broader security interests beyond this longstanding contest with Taiwan.

But its strategic ambitions require China to have military capabilities that could counter any challenge by the United States.

Together with a broad-based modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a strengthening of its nuclear deterrent, China initially addressed this problem through its asymmetric "assassin's mace" strategy.

Rather than seeking to match Washington's extensive arsenal, Beijing looked to undermine its effectiveness — for example, through the development of anti-satellite weapons.

This approach has now been refined through a concept known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which involves establishing maritime exclusion zones that considerably complicate offensive operations. With this, China is clearly targeting the potential involvement of American aircraft carrier battle groups in any conflict over Taiwan.

The clearest illustration of this strategy involves ongoing efforts by the PLA to develop the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, whose promised range exceeds 1,500 km. This could significantly affect U.S. naval operations in the Asia-Pacific region — and any naval ambitions of China's Asian neighbors.

But A2/AD involves more than any single weapon, as a recent article in American Interest magazine explained:

"China's military is acquiring extended-range, precision-guided ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles to target U.S. and allied ports, airbases and aircraft carriers, making it much more difficult to deploy forces and conduct air strikes," wrote Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"It is building up its integrated air defense network to locate and attack all but the stealthiest approaching aircraft. Its burgeoning fleet of submarines is intended to hunt down U.S. and allied surface ships.

"China's anti-ship cruise missile batteries can fend off an approaching amphibious force. China has also demonstrated the ability to hold U.S. low-earth orbit satellites at risk (and) it has also established a Fourth Department of the PLA dedicated to conducting offensive cyber network attacks.

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