For the past decade, while the West has been consumed battling Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Central Asia, China has been engaged in a rapid and impressive effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.It sounds more impressive on paper than it actually is. China has one aircraft carrier -- bought from Russia, not nearly as capable as US carriers and dependent on maintenance the Chinese may not be capable of providing.
For years, China focused its military spending on the People’s Liberation Army, while the Air Force and Navy served as little more than adjuncts to the Army. But with the launch of its first aircraft carrier next month, the rest of the world – and especially the United States’ Asian allies – is taking note of how dramatically things have changed. China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.
China’s build-up is driven by a two-pronged strategy. First, China seeks to deny access by the United States and other naval powers to the Yellow, East China and South China Seas, thereby (1) establishing its own equivalent to the way the United States saw the Caribbean in the 20th century, from which its blue water navy can operate globally; (2) dominating the natural resources and disputed island chains such as the Spratly and Senkaku Island chains in those seas; and (3) giving it the capacity to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force and without US interference, if necessary. China’s assertiveness in confronting and harassing Asian and US civilian and naval ships in the region over the past decade shows a sustained level of determination on this front.
Second, China seeks international prestige and a power projection capacity in the Pacific and Indian Ocean sea lanes by deploying multiple aircraft carriers and fifth-generation stealth fighter-bombers. The booming Chinese economy has become ever more dependent on imported minerals and oil from Africa and the Middle East, and the ability to protect its Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca sea lanes is a responsibility that China is no longer willing to delegate to other powers.
Far more disconcerting, however, is China's development of anti-ship missiles:
Traditional measures of naval power fail to give an accurate picture of China’s maritime ambitions and capabilities. Beijing currently lacks the hardware and skills to keep a carrier at sea, especially under wartime conditions. So even if there is the political will to commit the necessary resources, it will be many years before China joins the exclusive carrier club.To what end?
Thus, it is in the murkier arena of unconventional weaponry – the modern-day, real-world equivalent of the sling and stone David used to defeat Goliath – that represent the truest indication of China’s nautical prowess. Indeed, Beijing already boasts a range of non-traditional (or what the Pentagon calls ‘asymmetric’) capabilities that could unsettle Asian maritime stability and pose problems far beyond Chinese shores without it ever building a carrier.
Over the past decade, China has introduced a variety of disruptive technologies designed to make US and Allied naval operations in the Pacific more hazardous. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union possessed an arsenal of powerful, manoeuvrable anti-ship missiles that could skim just metres above the water at supersonic speeds. Today, Chinese engineers and scientists are mastering similar technologies.
Chinese planners have long assumed – correctly and realistically – that the PLA would fight from a position of weakness should it be pitted against the United States, a vastly superior military power. Missiles, however, being relatively cheap and easy to mass produce, offer an excellent chance of evening the odds.
A long-range cruise missile costs as little as $500,000 – a pittance for China – while a single US cruiser is worth around $1 billion. To put it another way, one US aircraft carrier would literally buy 10,000 missiles. Missiles are also tremendously difficult to defend against, as evidenced in the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the UK, when a single French-built Exocet missile sank the Royal Navy’s HMS Sheffield.
While the warhead did not detonate upon impact, the speed of the projectile (clocked at over 1100km/h) and the inferno caused by the remaining fuel in the missile’s fuselage were sufficient to doom the Sheffield, which has come to symbolise the vulnerability of modern warships.
Beyond its operational lethality, Beijing also looks to its missile force for its strategic effects. Chinese strategists believe the threat of missile strikes could force US carrier groups to keep their distance, effectively erecting a no-go zone along the Asian littorals.Cannot be taken for granted. Which is why cuts to the US defense budget right now, including the inexcusable refusal to fund the F-22 Raptor, are counterproductive, to say the least. Nature abhors a vacuum. The US retreating from its traditional speheres of interest will see someone, perhaps a malevolent power like China, fill the void, which would not be in US or international interests.
How large this nautical safe haven might be is anyone’s guess, but US military planners are clearly troubled by recent trends. Successive annual reports published by the Pentagon assert that ‘China is seeking to hold surface ships at risk through a layered capability reaching out to the “second island chain” [which runs from the Kuriles in the north through Japan, the Bonins, the Marianas and the Carolines, and down to Indonesia in the south].’ This implies that the Chinese are seeking the capability to deny US military access to Asian waters by unleashing salvos of accurate missiles that could reach as far as Guam, a major hub for American power projection.
If the Chinese are able to fully develop ballistic missiles, Beijing would, for the first time, be able to launch long-range (over 1600km) attacks against maritime targets direct from the mainland – a scenario the Pentagon is clearly taking seriously.
So under what circumstances would China create such a contested zone? A crisis or conflict over Taiwan would undoubtedly trigger attempts to deny US military access to the region. The Chinese fully expect Washington to call on its carriers should it ever decide to intervene in a cross-strait conflict, and recognise that aircraft carriers would play a crucial role in clearing the skies above and the seas around Taiwan of PLA forces. Beijing therefore plans to use the missile threat to deprive – or at least deter – the US of this option.
China’s calculus is an entirely rational response to past events. In 1996, Beijing lobbed missiles into waters near Taiwan to intimidate the island’s citizenry on the eve of a presidential election. However, the Chinese leadership learned to its dismay that the military was impotent when US President Bill Clinton responded with the dispatch of two carriers near the strait. That bitter lesson compelled the Chinese to redouble their efforts to avoid future embarrassment.
But Taiwan is not the only prize. The ‘China seas’ – the Yellow, East China and South China Seas – have long been regarded by Beijing as its offshore preserve. Heavy maritime traffic, driven by fellow Asian nations’ voracious appetite for Chinese goods, plied these waters in dynastic times. Indeed, these nautical thoroughfares were integral to the China-centric maritime order, which collapsed after the fleets of China’s last dynasty suffered humiliating reverses at the hands of Western imperial powers and Japan.
China’s capacity to influence events at sea with its missile force could thus buttress Beijing’s sense of entitlement over large bodies of Asian waters. Whether the Chinese would seek to employ its arsenal as an arbiter of US military presence in Asia remains to be seen. But that very possibility suggests that America’s undisputed dominance on the high seas and pre-eminent position in the region cannot be taken for granted.
This makes the dispute over the Spratly Islands -- prime positions for anti-ship missiles to cut off maritime trade through the South China Sea -- all the more important.
More background on the development of Chinese strategy:
Back in 1985, there was a significant shift in Chinese naval strategy, from one of defending Chinese coastlines to one of meeting threats at sea, called Offshore Defence. It’s arguably this policy that has had the biggest influence on strategic thinking in the region, both as an expression of growing Chinese power and as a cause of friction with the United States and other Asian states. Coming three years after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea had internationalised sea resource and maritime territorial issues, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) doctrine of ‘Offshore Defence’ conceived of two island chains forming geographic defence barriers to any attacking opponent.Already, fears of an upcoming vacuum has spurred response by the Japanese:
The first island chain supposedly stretches from the southern tip of Japan to the South China Sea and encompasses many of the region’s most important sea lanes of communication (as well as its richest fishing waters), while the second chain is supposed to stretch out into the Pacific, and includes Indonesia, Borneo, the Bonins, the Carolinas and the Philippines. The development of a Chinese submarine and anti-ship missile systems became a priority for the PLAN over the next decades, something that was hastened by the 1995-6 Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which Bill Clinton reacted to Sino-Taiwanese tensions by sending two carrier battle groups into the waters around Taiwan to demonstrate US willingness to defend the island.
Such US muscle-flexing met with a Chinese response. Between 2002 and 2006, the Pentagon estimates that Russia sold over $11 billion in military craft to China, including Su-27 Flanker and Su-30 Flanker interceptors, 3M-54E (SS-N-27B) anti-ship cruise missiles, Il-78 Midas in-flight refuelling tankers, Il-76 Candid transport planes, Kilo-class diesel submarines and Sovremenny Class destroyers. And, alongside this build-up, China has developed naval facilities that have extended its reach into South East Asia, including a submarine base on Hainan Island, as well as developing long-distance operations through anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
Saying publicly for the first time what they’ve thought privately for years, Japanese defence planners in December announced a new defence posture that fingered China’s military rise as justification for a new, more proactive approach, including a refocusing of forces from Japan’s north to its southernmost islands.The vacuum is shown by little in the way of a US response to China's bullying of its neighbors:
Unfortunately, China’s response was as predictable as it was unhelpful: it issued a blunt statement saying that no country had the right to make irresponsible comments about its development.
From a distance, it’s hard not to be alarmed at the three trends that have dominated the region over the last decade: the growth of Chinese power, the relative decline of US power and the resulting remilitarisation of Japanese power. Indeed, given the growth in importance of the region to the global economy, these trends are as alarming as they are dangerous since they have the capacity to be self-fulfilling, driving a cycle of mistrust and spiralling arms spending. And, since Japan’s defence posture automatically includes the United States (which is obliged by treaty to come to Japan’s defence) any potential conflict has all the ingredients for a ‘great power war.’
When tasked with the decline in their soft power, Chinese analysts and foreign policy editorials are quick to apportion blame to the United States. Seeking to benefit from a ‘divide and conquer strategy,’ the US has beefed up its own lagging influence at China’s expense, they suggest. The problem with this narrative is that while it correctly sees China’s influence loss as the United States’ gain, it misunderstands the causes.I'm not sure we should expect to see a return of Kido Butai anytime soon, but Japan does now have an aircraft carrier, the Hyuga. The next one in the class will supposedly be named the Ise. Both are appropriately named after the weird battleship-carrier things they had in World War II; for years the Japanese tried to pass the Hyuga off as a destroyer, to the amusement of military analysts. The names probably also serve as a warning to the Chinese: We know carriers better than you do. The Hyuga may even be more capable than China's "new" carrier.
China is, above all, responsible for developing a power-projection capability and for using it for short-term gain. While China’s point of view that this is no more, no less than previous rising powers have sought is understandable, such thinking, planning and acting is more characteristic of 19th century powers than of those in the 21st century.
And the results of all this are already clear. Further Chinese militarisation will be met with further Japanese militarisation—and thus begins a dangerous cycle. By focusing on Japan’s past rather than a mutually beneficial future, and by embracing the worst elements of nationalism, Chinese leaders have sought to displace questions over legitimacy and internal political reform.
China's bullying has also rattled the nations of ASEAN:
China is usually typecast as the villain in the Asia-Pacific’s security dramas, and the recent confrontations in the South China Sea have been no different. The narrative has revolved around an aggressive China that has recklessly pushed the envelope of its territorial claims, steamrolling its weaker neighbours and jeopardising regional stability.I don't believe ASEAN is to blame for this; this particular article is basically making excuses for a bully. One country and one country alone is to blame: China.
China’s actions and miscommunications have indeed contributed to the growing discordance of the security mood music, with the Philippines and Vietnam in particular genuinely alarmed about the assertiveness – veering perhaps between aggression and plain clumsiness – which China has been displaying in the disputed zones of the South China Sea.
But that’s only part of the story: Asia’s maritime difficulties are above all a collective failure. Between them, the region’s stakeholders have succeeded only in exposing the dangerous weakness of their multilateral institutions. These platforms, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among them, are struggling to regulate the behaviour of their members and develop meaningful controls over the region’s security. This is because competing interests, rather than common purpose, continue to dominate regional thinking, even within ASEAN. It can also partly be explained by the enduring presence of one very successful, unilateral security institution in the Pacific region: the United States military.
That said, ASEAN better get its act together. And fast.