Don’t Go Overboard: China’s Naval Modernization & the US Response

With the impending launch of its first aircraft carrier, increasing out of area operations and territory disputes in the South China Sea, China’s naval modernization continues to be pertinent for Asia-Pacific security. On Monday March 12, I attended a book talk at Johns Hopkins University entitled “The PLA Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles”. The book can be downloaded here. The topics and perspectives given were strikingly similar to the February 2012 Congressional Research Service report on China Naval Modernization; however, the discussants were more optimistic about the future of US-China relations and the struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific. While the rise of China and its military capabilities may be inevitable, the decline of the US in the near term is not. This post will highlight several features of China’s naval modernization and its impact upon the American pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.

The continued increase in naval spending by China (and India, for that matter) should be viewed as normal rather than a threat to regional stability. China’s naval modernization began in the 1990s and “encompasses a broad array of weapon acquisition programs, including programs for anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles, mines, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, patrol craft, amphibious ships, mine countermeasures (MCM) ships, hospital ships, and supporting C4ISR10 systems.” The effort also includes “improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises.” (CRS, 3) A rising naval power does not always mean more conflict. At the time of its ascent, the US did not use its increased power with rivals the UK and Soviet Russia. It’s only fair that when a state develops economically that it should also be able to add new technologies to its capacity. China will be the last of the permanent UN Security Council members to obtain an aircraft carrier. A lot of fuss has been made about China reaching that level of naval strength, but it is not surprising that the state would seek out such capabilities. Even so, it will take the Chinese military time to learn to manage the carrier and to use it as an effective part of its defense.

According to panelists at the book discussion, a twenty-year long debate within the PLAN has shown that ‘there is no real strategy yet’. However, China is working to create a comprehensive strategy instead of relying on operational guides, and is likely to continue to expand its range and type of operations. Several of the emerging trends in China as noted by Christopher Yung have been submarine development, out of area operations (such as in the Gulf of Aden), operationalization of anti-ship missiles and the arrival of the aircraft carrier. New missions include naval diplomacy, the use of a hospital ship (great imagery with China’s flag in background assisting others), the PLAN being seen as the protector of the economy (vital to protect shipping lanes), and Hu Jintao’s ‘new historic missions’. The CRS report also noted that China’s naval modernization effort is increasingly directed in pursuit of the following goals unrelated to Taiwan:

  • asserting or defending territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea;
  • enforcing China’s view that is has legal right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ);
  • protecting China’s sea lines of communications;
  • protecting and evacuating Chinese nationals living and working in foreign countries;
  • displacing US influence in the Pacific; and
  • asserting China’s status as a major world power. (CRS, 4-5)

These goals are of course very realist in nature, as would be expected by American analysts and policy advisors. China’s naval modernization effort and pursuits of its interests are moving at a respectable pace, leading many eyes to watch developments in the Pacific as it develops a more comprehensive naval strategy.

Anti-access and area denial are American-introduced terms which are now used to describe attempts by China to prevent the US from intervening if China sought to attack Taiwan. The emerging maritime anti-access force is similar to the seadenial force developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War to deny American “use of the sea or counter US forces participating in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict.” (CRS, 4) However, China’s force also includes anti-ship ballistic missiles (DF-21) with the ability to hit moving ships. “The basic idea is to prevent approaching US Navy aircraft carrier strike groups from getting within tactical aircraft operating ranges.” The US government views this as a method “to challenge US freedom of action within the region”. Observers herald the DF-21 a “game changing” weapon, because the US has not previously faced this threat from anti-ship ballistic missiles. China is somewhat conflicted in its desire to keep other states from intervening or being effective in the region (by utilizing its anti-access and area denial capabilities) and while also seeking to reach out to other regions. The potential for Chinese power-projection grows stronger as its naval power develops. A central tenet of the US policy of deterrence is believability, and so when it can the US tries to take a stern stance on China’s power projection in the region. The Obama administration’s tour of the Pacific last year including the harsh words sent to Chinese leadership and the stationing of US troops in Darwin, Australia contributed to the deterrence strategy. Moreover, the US already has Air Sea Battle plans to balance anti-access and area denial capabilities; the maritime strategy is apparently “not directed at any single country, but China is the only one with anti-access arms.” (CRS, 41)

Taiwan is only one security issue among many for China, and the probability for war between the two states is on the decline. To the PLAN event discussants, that meant there are more avenues and opportunities for cooperation between China and the US rather than armed conflict; it is difficult to imagine the two powers engaging in war over circumstances other than Taiwan’s safety. For example, freedom of navigation and the protection of shipping lanes would be of mutual benefit. For the CRS Report, even “in the absence of such a conflict…the US-Chinese military balance in the Pacific could nevertheless influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries, including on choices whether to align their policies more closely with China or the US.” (CRS, 1) Once China’s aircraft carrier is fully functional, it will have a political as well as strategic impact on the region. Both the US and China are concerned about the ‘political evolution of the Pacific, which in turn could affect’ their abilities to pursue particular policies in the region and elsewhere. (CRS, 2) Budget cuts have affected other parts of the US Department of Defense, but the US government was clear that US Naval forces in the Pacific will remain strong.

With such different geostrategic environments the navies of the US and China have evolved and been used in different ways. The US Navy is not as concerned with protecting its coastline as the PLA Navy; not only are their perspectives different but their immediate security concerns vary. It is important for the US and China to maintain a dialogue of shared goals and concerns; as much as China’s military modernization has turned heads, so too has the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific.                       

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