WE HAVE AN AGREEMENT
8 August 2016
Dr. Komamura Sajin took in the view of Hanoi as they drove. Much of the architecture still reflected French rule, although modern buildings were mixed in everywhere, replacing ones destroyed in “The War.”
The city was filled with history. After his lecture yesterday morning, he’d visited the B-52 Victory Museum, escorted by a large party of Vietnamese officers and officials. They’d even arranged a meeting with a veteran of the war who’d flown MiGs against the Americans. Komamura was still getting used to his celebrity status, but he loved the perks that came with it.
His official escort, Commander Nimh, had chatted with the professor in English, since Komamura spoke little Vietnamese. Nimh had read the new Vietnamese translation of Komamura’s book, and was obviously enthused to meet its author. Nimh made it clear that he considered the assignment a privilege, and that there had been fierce competition for the spot.
They were close to the ministry now. It occupied an entire block of Hanoi, but looked more like a college campus than office buildings or a military headquarters. Light-colored brick buildings with red roofs surrounded a grassy quadrangle with a fountain in the center. Trees dotted the grassy areas and almost surrounded the ministry buildings.
They turned out of the morning traffic and stopped at the security gate. In spite of the official car, the driver and Commander Nimh both had to present their identification. The commander showed a letter vouching for Komamura, and the guards checked him against their own access list.
There were more security checkpoints after they entered the main building and went to the top floor. As in other military headquarters he’d visited, Komamura passed relics in glass cases, paintings of battles, and several images of Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. At the last checkpoint, he surrendered his smartphone.
Komamura was nervous; he’d been treated like royalty, and had enjoyed every minute of it. But there comes a time when royalty has to earn its keep. Normally he didn’t pay much attention to his appearance, but he’d dressed for the occasion in his best suit with a wave-patterned dark blue silk tie embroidered with the kanji character for “umi,” the sea.
Nimh led him to a top-floor conference room. Instead of a large table, there were several groups of comfortable-looking chairs. Occupying three were several older naval officers. Preparing for the trip, Komamura had studied Vietnamese rank insignia. These were senior admirals.
A junior officer stepped up to translate, and the professor was quickly introduced to Admiral Hieu, the navy’s chief of staff, and Admirals Phai and Duan, the heads of the Vietnamese Navy’s political and intelligence directorates. He realized they’d all been at his lecture yesterday, but they hadn’t been introduced to him at that time.
While Nimh served small cups of tea, Komamura took a seat next to the chief of staff. The admiral was old enough to have a puckered scar on his left arm that ran up under his shirtsleeve. Komamura had heard he’d been wounded in the south. He hadn’t heard how.
Komamura was only slightly younger than the admirals, but his expensive suit contrasted sharply with their dark green uniforms. He was also nearly six feet tall, a full head higher than Admiral Hieu and the others. Komamura’s large frame filled his chair, and his Buddha-like bulge would never have been tolerated in military service. Their only similarity was a lack of hair. Komamura had a fringe of white, Phai’s was thin to the point of transparency, while the other two had simply shaved their scalps.
“Admiral Kubo sends his best wishes,” Komamura said. “I spoke with him just before leaving Japan. He remembers your meeting in Honolulu warmly.”
“At the Pacific defense chiefs’ conference,” Hieu remembered. “Our first discussions there were most helpful.”
Once Nimh had made sure everyone was settled, he disappeared, leaving Komamura with the three admirals and the translator. The professor knew he faced his examiners.
Admiral Phai, the head of the political directorate, began the conversation. “The new Vietnamese translation of Navies for Asia has been very well received here. It was even reviewed in Quan Noi Nhan Dan, a mainstream newspaper, although the reviewer criticized it for being ‘pro-Chinese.’”
Komamura laughed, almost a chuckle. “That’s what he gets for not reading carefully. Recognizing the growth of Chinese military power doesn’t mean I support that growth.”
“We agree with you that the Chinese threat is only going to get worse,” Phai responded. “Every country bordering the South China Sea has suffered attacks on their exploration ships, unauthorized fishing in their waters, and confrontations with Chinese paramilitary vessels. The number of these incidents is growing, and China makes no apologies.”
Hieu asked, “Have other navies besides Japan and Vietnam shown interest in your book?”
“I’ve lectured in America, and received e-mails from almost every littoral nation. Many are from naval officers. I’ve had to hire a secretary. I will be visiting the Republic of Korea almost as soon as my trip here is finished, and a little later, India.”
“Why did you choose naval strategy for your latest work?” This came from Admiral Duan, head of the Second General Department, the armed forces’ intelligence branch. “You teach economics at Tokyo University. Your earlier books have been about economics or history.”
Komamura nodded. “True, but it’s impossible to separate economics from politics, or politics from war. My latest book began as an analysis of China’s rapid economic growth in the new century, but that massive growth demands resources, especially energy and food.” He shrugged. “China has always been hungry, but now her hunger drives her to the sea. I decided to share my conclusions.”
Duan continued, “You are a member of the New Renaissance Party, which promotes a strong military and reverence for the emperor. Isn’t your book just a reflection of your political beliefs?”
The professor shook his head, disagreeing. “My political beliefs are rather a reflection of my research.” Komamura began ticking off points on his fingers. In Japanese fashion, he raised his little finger first.
“First, Chinese economic growth requires far more resources than they have. They see those resources close at hand, in the South China Sea. The rapid growth is masking artificialities and serious flaws in the Chinese economy. If their economy slows too much, and it is slowing, it will likely collapse.
“Second, in pursuit of those resources, China is transforming her navy from a coastal defense force to a blue-water regional power. This is a clear signal of their intentions.
“Third, U.S. military power in this part of the world is waning. They are still paying the bill for two long wars, and force modernization has suffered. There are also questions about their political will. China is America’s second biggest export customer, as well as her greatest importer. Furthermore, China is the largest holder of U.S. debt. I submit that we cannot depend on a distant, weary America to counterbalance nearby Chinese military power.”
Komamura finished, “I joined the New Renaissance Party three years ago, and hope to advise them on economic and security issues.”
Admiral Hieu had listened as Komamura made his arguments. “There are nations that would not be happy to see a stronger Japan, not only free of American support, but unrestrained by any obligations to America.” Komamura knew that Vietnam had been occupied by Japan during the Second World War, although they had not suffered as badly as Korea or the Philippines.
“I do not advocate becoming stronger individually, but rather increasing our strength through alliances independent of U.S. interests, which may not be the same as our own. And what drove Japanese aggression during the Pacific War?” Komamura asked pointedly. “Demand for resources to support her rapid industrialization. Japan’s military leadership in 1941 was filled with a sense of their own manifest destiny. I believe China’s leaders are driven not only by national pride, but also fear. If their economy falters, they risk losing power. If it collapses, the nation could go with it. For the Chinese leadership, aggression in the South China Sea presents fewer risks.”
“Dr. Komamura, how did you first contact the Japanese Maritime Defense Force?”
“They contacted me,” Komamura answered. “After Navies was published, I gave lectures at several naval bases and the academy at Etajima. After a lecture at Yokosuka, I participated in a long discussion on naval developments with a small group of officers. Admiral Kubo himself joined the group for a short while. Afterwards, I was approached by one of his aides.”
Hieu looked at the other two admirals, who both nodded firmly. He turned back to Komamura. “The original purpose of this meeting was to discuss the concept of an alliance of South and East China Sea littoral nations, an idea you have championed and your Admiral Kubo Noriaki fully supports. Unfortunately, circumstances have changed.”
Komamura looked confused and uncertain. “In what way?”
Admiral Hieu spoke quickly. “Professor, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with the full approval of the Politburo and the Defense Council, agrees in principle with your ‘littoral alliance.’ We are ready to work out the details of the collaboration immediately. Every country in the region is threatened by Chinese aggression. Even working together, it will be difficult for us to stop that aggression. Individually, we don’t stand a chance.”
The academic was pleased and excited, but puzzled. “But this is wonderful news! I will convey your answer to Admiral Kubo as soon as I return to Japan. But what else has changed?”
“China’s plans,” Hieu explained, “and our infant alliance faces an immediate challenge.” He turned to the translator. “Ask Commander Ty to join us.”
Commander Ty was in his early thirties, and still had all his hair. While he quickly set up a laptop, the translator hurried over and sat next to Komamura, whispering to the professor as Ty began his brief.
“Good morning, Dr. Komamura, I am Cao Van Ty. I am assigned to the Second General Department, our intelligence branch.” Ty bowed toward the academic, then Admiral Duan, his superior. “I will be presenting highly sensitive information about an imminent Chinese threat which affects both our countries. Professor, can we have your promise that you will not share what you learn today with anyone else, unless we give you permission to do so?”
“Of course,” Komamura replied quickly. Curiosity filled him, but also foreboding. What was going on?
Ty pressed a key and a flat screen at one end of the conference room came alive with a map of the South China Sea. The Vietnamese coast lined the left edge, while Hainan Island was in the center. The Leizhou Peninsula reached out from China’s southern coast toward Hainan. The mainland coast angled northeast from the peninsula until it disappeared at the upper right corner.
Ty stood next to the screen. “I’m sure you’re aware of Liaoning’s exercises last week.”
“Their new carrier?” Komamura answered. “Yes. It was even covered by the mainstream media. Inaccurately, but at least they noticed.”
Ty continued. “Liaoning is now back at her homeport in Yalong Bay. Her captain reports that several minor mechanical issues need to be corrected. He is also loading fuel, ordnance, and the rest of Liaoning’s air group. This will consist of ten J-15 fighters, six Ka-28 sub-hunting helicopters, and four Z-8 radar helicopters. He reports they will be ready to sail in five days.
“When she does sail, she will be escorted by the same six warships that took part in the exercise, three destroyers and three frigates, all armed with advanced guided missiles. The task group will rendezvous with two amphibious ships of the Type 071 class, then proceed to Guangzhou.” A line appeared on the chart, starting at the southern tip of Hainan Island, heading north to the naval base at Zhanjiang, where the Leizhou Peninsula joined the Chinese mainland, then north again to the Guangzhou shipyard near Hong Kong.
“We have photos of a platform being built at Guangzhou.” The screen changed to show pictures of a very large, flat structure, spotted with different colors of primer and gray paint. Open girder framework showed in many places. The images were overlaid with circles and labeled in Vietnamese. “The shipyard there builds many offshore oil platforms, but this structure is larger, and has a different configuration. But more importantly, it is armed.
“The circles mark the location of protective fiberglass domes, most likely covering point defense weapons.” He pointed to one corner of the structure that did not have a dome. “The foundation here is consistent with the Chinese HHQ-10 point defense missile system. These large fiberglass structures near the front are shelters for sensor and communications antennas.”
Ty pressed a control and the map returned. A bright line led south from Guangzhou deep into the South China Sea. “The Liaoning task group will escort the platform, under tow and accompanied by several self-loading container ships, to Thi Tu Island.” Ty used the Vietnamese name for the island. The Chinese claimed it as “Zhongye Island,” but the current occupiers, the Philippines, called it “Thitu Island.” Thitu was the largest island in the Spratly archipelago, and even sported an airstrip. “The transit will take five or six days, depending on the weather.
“When they are close, marines from one of the amphibious assault ships will seize the island, currently held by about forty Filipino soldiers, and the platform will be anchored at one end of the island. Prefabricated containers carried by the merchants will be placed on landing craft and taken ashore, creating barracks, repair shops, hangars for fighters, and other facilities.
“Our engineers estimate it will take three days to anchor the structure. Within twenty-four hours after that, the Chinese will have a base defended by an integrated air-defense system, capable of operating a squadron of high-performance fighters and garrisoned by a battalion of marines.”
Komamura was chilled to the bone. The Chinese had long claimed the entire South China Sea, ignoring other nations’ borders, but that was only words. A strong military base would let them enforce that claim. Not one of the nations surrounding the South China Sea had the firepower to dislodge such a foothold. The Americans could, but he was convinced they wouldn’t risk open war with China, not over a collection of small, disputed islands. Even if the United States wanted to fight, they were unprepared. He was sure the Chinese, with the strategic initiative, would be ready to counter just such a move.
“But one small island with forty soldiers doesn’t require two Kunlun Shan landing ships to capture it.” Ty put an image of the ship on the screen. It was a large, modern-looking design. “Each Type 071 landing ship dock carries up to eight hundred marines and eighteen armored vehicles. Simultaneous with the attack on Thi Tu, the Chinese will also invade Song Tu Tay Island, also known as Southwest Cay, and Northeast Cay approximately forty-four kilometers to the north. The first island is Vietnamese sovereign territory, the second is Filipino,” concluded Ty.
The Japanese academic fought to hide his shock and surprise.
“There’s more,” Ty said firmly. “Soon after China occupies key islands in the Spratly chain, they intend to invade the Senkaku Islands claimed by your country.”
Komamura was stunned. To seize so many of the disputed islands and reefs in rapid succession was mind-boggling. The Chinese intentions, if true, were beyond bold. One question surfaced in his mind immediately.
“This information is very detailed. I’m not an intelligence specialist, but I’ve learned that naval intelligence is usually guesswork and deduction. How sure are you of this information?”
Hieu answered, “Very sure. We don’t have many of the resources available to Japan or her allies, but we have a source. Over time, it has provided us with much valuable information on the Chinese, but this is priceless. We are telling you of this so you will be confident when you speak to Admiral Kubo, but you will have to convince him on your own. I won’t say anything more about this individual. Knowledge of the source’s mere existence is highly classified. Please do not speak of this source to anyone outside this room, even Admiral Kubo.”
“I understand.” Komamura knew little about espionage, but he could imagine a Vietnamese national masquerading as a loyal Chinese citizen, working in a headquarters or on a naval base. He hoped they lived long enough to receive the medal they’d earned.
“What is the chance of this information being fabricated?” Komamura asked Duan.
The intelligence chief shrugged. “Anything is possible, but if this information is false,” he added darkly, “then our source has been compromised and our entire intelligence network in China is in jeopardy. That is another reason why we need Japan’s help.”
“How?” the professor responded.
Duan answered, “The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have access to overhead imagery, electronic intelligence, other assets that we do not. It could confirm or disprove what we know. We will give you a flash drive containing what we know. In return, we’d like your country to share what information they have, and also begin careful surveillance of Yulin, Yalong Bay, Zhanjiang, and Guangzhou. We must be ready if the Chinese change their plans suddenly. And of course, Japan must be careful not to let the Chinese see them watching.”
Komamura replied, “I will pass your request for information to Admiral Kubo. Once he’s made aware of the Chinese plan, he will very much want to monitor their activities.”
Hieu continued, “And somehow, we have to develop a joint plan with Japan to stop the Chinese.”
Komamura sighed. “That presents many complications. I can see the Diet tying itself in knots over whether assisting the Philippines or cooperating with Vietnam is ‘self-defense,’ as required by our constitution.” The professor’s disgust was clear in his tone.
“Let me be clear, Professor. The president and key members of the parliament and the party have been briefed, and we see no way to stop the Chinese operation by ourselves. We are willing to use any means at our disposal, including armed force, but…”
Komamura nodded. The idea of Vietnam’s small navy facing a naval superpower was outlandish at best. “Is there any hope for a peaceful resolution? What about revealing what you’ve learned to the UN or ASEAN?”
“We’ve considered that idea, but there’s little either organization could do, and they move too slowly. PLA units are moving now, and as Commander Ty has said, Liaoning sails in five days,” Phai answered. “The threat this poses to our national wellbeing is staggering. The Chinese claim the entire South China Sea basin, right up to the 12-mile limit from our coast. It would shut down our fishing industry. Not only would a lot of people go hungry, seafood exports are important to out economy - but that doesn’t matter, because with China claiming the entire South China Sea, our ports would be effectively blockaded.” The urgency in Phai’s voice was palpable.
“And that doesn’t include the significant oil reserves,” Hieu added. “I’m sure you know the numbers better than we do, Professor, but those deposits are my country’s economic future.”
“China has decided to abandon diplomacy for the sword. We have to be ready to meet them,” Phai remarked. “But Professor, why are they moving now? Has something in the Chinese economy recently changed for the worse?”
The academic sat quietly for a moment, considering the question carefully. Finally, he said, “They resolved their own real estate ‘bubble’ in 2014 successfully, but only by shifting the economic pressure elsewhere. As a result, their cash reserves are dangerously low. The shortfall in oil imports from Saudi Arabia and Iran is also causing major problems, but it’s not a sudden thing…”
He turned to Commander Ty. “How long does it take to build a platform like the one at Guangzhou?”
“Our engineers say two to three years. And more time before that to design it, of course.”
“So the Chinese decided on this course of action at least three years ago,” Komamura reasoned. “About the time the shortfall in Iranian oil supplies began.”
Admiral Duan nodded. “It’s likely. So then, this is not about some new crisis. They’re moving now, because after extensive preparations, they’re finally ready.”
“The carrier!” Hieu blurted out. “Liaoning’s workups are complete. She’s ready to lead the assault.”
Duan nodded, his face grim, “Her pilots are likely the best in the PLA Navy. They will provide air cover for the Chinese engineers while they set up the platform. The Philippines don’t have any planes that can match them. We have Su-30 and Su-27 aircraft, based on the same Flanker airframe as the Chinese J-15s, but it’s over five hundred kilometers to Thi Tu from any of our bases. The Chinese would have the advantages of radar and SAM coverage, as well as the carrier to recover damaged aircraft.”
“It’s worse than that,” Hieu emphasized. “If they establish their base, they can put a squadron of land-based fighters on the island and cooperate with the squadron aboard Liaoning. Those two Chinese squadrons effectively match the power of our entire air force. And they can replace any losses with more aircraft from the mainland.” Nodding toward Komamura, Hieu remarked, “And it’s completely out of range for planes from Japan.”
“This ignores the much more important issue: open conflict with China.” Duan asked, “Are any of us ready for that?”
“Not when we are so likely to lose,” Hieu answered. “We’re willing to fight, but there has to be some chance for success.”
Komamura asked Hieu, “If the Chinese are acting now because the carrier is ready, would they undertake this operation without the carrier?”
The admiral frowned for a moment, considering the question. “I don’t know. Such a grand plan is unprecedented. This is the PLAN’s first large-scale offensive. If they did press ahead without Liaoning, they would be more exposed to air attack. Yes. Without the carrier, the odds change to favor us.”
“Then stop the carrier,” Komamura stated flatly. “You know where she will be for the next five days. They are not aware that you’ve learned their plans, so they will not be expecting an attack.”
“The PLAN’s anti-submarine skills are notoriously poor,” Hieu conceded. “One of our submarines could easily wait at the mouth of the harbor until she sorties. We don’t have to sink her. Even one torpedo hit could send her into the yards for many months.”
Duan shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I disagree. The escorts would likely detect the torpedo launch, and probably the submarine itself. An overt attack would be quickly traced back to us. With the Chinese plan frustrated, but still secret, we look like the aggressor.”
“Then a more covert attack,” Komamura suggested. “Lay mines across the mouth of the harbor, to catch her when the carrier departs. The submarine can be long gone when they are triggered. Also, the defenses won’t be as alert now as when the carrier is coming out.”
Hieu ordered Ty, “Zoom the map in to show us the harbor at Yalong Bay.”
Ty worked the laptop. First, Hainan Island expanded, then the southern half grew until the naval base at the southern tip filled the screen. Ty pressed another key and hydrographic information appeared.
“What is Liaoning’s draft?” demanded Hieu.
Ty answered instantly, “Eleven meters,” and Komamura saw a small smile on Duan’s face. The commander studied the legend for a moment, then pointed to Yalong Bay. “Here is the long finger pier where Liaoning is berthed. There are two exits from the harbor, but the northern one, near Yeshu Island, is too shallow, only seven meters. She can’t get through, even at high tide. The southern exit, through the breakwater, is thirty meters deep and…” He worked the cursor. “… three hundred meters wide. The water depth changes smoothly from seventy meters to thirty in the harbor approaches from the south.”
Hieu remarked, “And those approaches are completely open water. A submarine captain can pick his course. He will have to go into shallow water,” he mused, “but not dangerously so.”
“Bottom mines?” Duan asked.
“Of course,” Hieu answered. “Russian MDM-6s. Banh Mi is in port at Nha Trang. I know Captain Thu well, and he’s more than capable of executing this mission. We’ll get her crew loading while our specialists figure out the best pattern. She can be under way tomorrow morning.”
Ty had been working with the chart. “It’s six hundred and seventy kilometers from Nha Trang to Yalong Bay. Transiting at fourteen knots, it will take her twenty-six hours to reach the target. I know Thu as well. He’ll shave some time off that figure.”
Hieu nodded. “Good. That gives her two days to scout the harbor, one to lay the mines, and a day to clear the area.”
Komamura felt a little out of his element. These professionals were planning an attack on another country while he watched and listened. But he had a question. “Isn’t Yalong Bay near Yulin, a commercial port? Won’t other ships also set off the mines?”
Ty answered. “The MDM-6 is triggered by a combination of a ship’s pressure wave, and its acoustic and magnetic signatures. We can adjust the mine to watch for a combination of all three—a combination unique to Liaoning. A single mine won’t sink her, unless they’re very unlucky, but detonating twenty meters away from her bottom?” Ty shrugged, but he was smiling.
“They’ll have to move her from Yalong Bay back to the yard at Dalian, possibly under tow, then put her in dry dock. She will be out of action for months, and by then the seasons will have changed. They need over a week of good weather to tow the platform to the Spratlys and anchor it.”
Phai grinned. “I like it. ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,’” he quoted.
“A Chinese proverb?” Komamura asked.
“The great master Sun Tzu himself,” the political chief explained. “There is still a risk of lives being lost, but it is much reduced compared to an armed occupation, or a battle at sea.”
“Absolutely,” Komamura agreed firmly. Then he asked, “Has any of this intelligence been shared with the Philippine government?”
Phai sighed. “There has been some discussion at very high levels, but even forewarned, the full weight of the Philippine military could not stop the Chinese operation. And telling them greatly increases the risk to our source.”
Komamura asked, “Should Liaoning successfully sail, would you reconsider?”
“I understand your concern, Professor,” Hieu answered solemnly. “Vietnam will not allow Philippine soldiers and civilians to suffer a Chinese attack without warning. As Commander Ty said, it will take the Chinese almost a week to tow their platform to Thi Tu Island. That’s more than enough time for the Filipinos to evacuate the island—or reinforce it, if they are insane enough to defend it.”
“You wouldn’t mind them leaving, though, so you could exercise Vietnam’s claim to the island,” Komamura prompted.
“Absent a Chinese task force, perhaps,” Hieu answered. “We will press our claim in the proper forum. But if the Chinese occupy the islands and the adjoining seas, everybody loses.”
Phai turned to Hieu. Using a slightly more formal tone, he said, “The Political Directorate approves of this plan. I will notify the Defense Council of this operation, recommending it as the only possible way of stopping the Chinese invasion without challenging their armed forces directly and risking open war. I’m sure they will approve it.”
Then turning back to Komamura, he added, “And we owe you our thanks, Professor. Our intention was to ask for Japan’s help in the hopes that they would find a way to assist us. It appears they have already sent us their best weapon.”
“I’m sure I thought of nothing original,” the professor insisted. “If you can drive me to the Japanese embassy, I will contact Admiral Kubo on a secure line.”
“Of course,” Hieu answered. “I know you have a flight back to Japan later today, but would you consider extending your visit? I will fly down to Nha Trang this afternoon and visit Banh Mi and her captain. Would you like to accompany me?”
Komamura smiled broadly. “I would like that very much.”
Copyright © 2013 by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson