Politics & Policy

Beijing’s Drive to Become a World Naval Power

The destroyer Wuhan leads a flotilla of Chinese ships in 2013.
China isn’t confining its activities to the Pacific.

Yesterday, China’s State Council Information Office released a document entitled China’s Military Strategy. The United States is alluded to in a number of passages, such as the section on national security, where the document states: “There are, however, new threats from hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism.” The tone of the document becomes more aggressive regarding territorial issues when it declares: “On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China” (emphasis added).

This new document is public confirmation of last month’s stunning report by the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence entitled, “The PLA Navy — New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century.” That report, combined with the new Chinese national-security document, should give pause to anyone concerned with American national security, especially those who believe in the indispensable nature of American primacy.

The highlights of the Navy’s report should generate concern on many counts. First, it is clear that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has gone from a barely capable “brown water” navy (river navigation and coastal hugging), to “green water” (coastal defense and regional waters), to its current transformation toward a “blue water” navy. The Chinese refer to this “blue water” transition as “Far Seas training.” The new national-security paper codifies all of this, stating: “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense with open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.” Second, we learn that for the first time Chinese nuclear-capable submarines (JIN class) will patrol in international waters, thus giving Beijing a true second-strike capability. This is happening while the Russians are bolstering their nuclear-submarine strike capability in the Pacific. Third, China continues to ramp up land-reclamation activity to create territory in the Pacific Ocean where very little existed before.

It is abundantly clear that the PRC is in the throes of a revival of 19th-century navalism.

It is abundantly clear that the PRC is in the throes of a revival of 19th-century navalism, realizing that the pathway to great-power status, international-trade protection, and intimidation capability runs through maritime power. Since those in charge in Beijing realize they still cannot battle the U.S. Navy in a symmetrical fashion, they are investing heavily in information warfare and “non-contact” warfare such as anti-access and area-denial strategies. The phrase “precision strikes from outside an enemy’s defended zone” should send chills up the spine of task-force commanders. This is salient, considering China’s push for longer-range anti-ship cruise missiles. China’s 300-ship navy is being augmented by an additional 60 ships a year, with a plan to increase this number through 2020 with a special emphasis on naval aviation and submarines. China will continue to push the envelope on aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious ships.

All of this is made diplomatically tense by China’s flouting international law by claiming what it calls “3 million square kilometers of blue territory.” China’s provocations against nations like Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, and others is all part of this military-diplomatic grand strategy. Beijing is effectively claiming sovereignty over large areas of the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, and over the Taiwan Straits, putting it on a collision course with its neighbors over the Spratly, Paracel, Scarborough, and Senkaku islands.

China’s land-reclamation activity is breathtaking. It has aptly been described as the “great wall of sand” project. It involves creating, enhancing, or extending islands, especially in the Spratlys, so as to make them capable of garrisoning hundreds of troops and of accommodating radar, docking facilities, missile installations, and runways. On top of this, the PRC is developing modular floating islands that could be deployed anywhere and could serve as movable land/air/sea homes for the Chinese military.

The new national-security document telegraphs four areas to watch: maritime power, outer space, cyberspace, and nuclear weapons. All of this military propaganda is confirmed by real measures. And it is all exacerbated by three phenomena demonstrating that this new Chinese offensive is not merely theoretical. First, China just concluded a joint naval exercise with the Russians in the Mediterranean Sea. This was characterized by Vice Admiral Aleksandr Fedotenkov as follows: “The exercises, held far away from the Russian and Chinese naval bases, showed our readiness to jointly face new threats and challenges at sea, and the ability to safeguard stability practically in any area of the World Ocean.” The new national-security document lauds this cooperation and promises more “exchanges and cooperation” with Russia.

Second is Beijing’s recent decision to enhance its “East Wind” DF-5 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). This multiplies the power of each missile by three nuclear warheads, each capable of hitting an American city independently. It is noteworthy that China has had the capability to do this for some time, but has chosen this particular moment in history to make this dangerous move.

Third, there is the ever-growing disparity between the military capabilities of Taiwan and those of the PRC. Beijing’s push to modernize and expand has overtaken Taiwan’s abilities. The technological and training advantage that Taiwan once had is being eroded by the day.

These are not the moves of a defensive power worried about its neighbors. These are the moves of a rising aggression and militarism whose goal is the domination of East Asia. We have seen these storm clouds in Asia before, and we belittled them before. The world witnessed the slow buildup of armaments mixed with rhetoric coming out of Japan from 1895 to 1941. The result was a knockout blow that took years to recover from.

— Lamont Colucci is an associate professor and chairman of politics and government at Ripon College, and the author of a two-volume work entitled The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How They Shape Our Present and Future. He is also senior fellow in National Security Affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council.

 

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