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.
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.
The officially reported Chinese military budget for 2011 is $91.5 billion, a massive increase from its $14.6 billion budget in 2000. China acknowledges that a third of its spending is now devoted to its Navy, yet even this big leap is almost certainly understated. China is notoriously non-transparent with its military expenditures, and most analysts believe that it spends significantly more on its armed forces than the publicly reported number. Further, Chinese military labour costs for its soldiers, sailors and airman is a fraction of what Western governments spend, where salaries, benefits and pensions are usually the largest share of defence budgets. This allows China to devote more of its budget to building weapons systems than its competitors. Unlike Western governments, which are slashing defence spending, China will continue to increase spending in coming years.
A key goal of China’s maritime build-up is access denial. While multifaceted, China is building its access denial strategy around two backbone platforms: the DF-21D (Dong Feng) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), described as a ‘Carrier Killer,’ and an ever expanding and modern attack submarine fleet. US Navy Pacific Commander Adm. Robert F. Willard has characterized the DF-21D as already having reached the Initial Operational Capability stage of development, meaning that they are operable, but not yet necessarily deployable. Taiwan sources report that China has already deployed at least 20 ASBMs. Whether deployed now or in the near future, the US Navy believes China already has the space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment. China also employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information necessary to employ the DF-21D. With a recently reported range of 2,600 kilometres, these missiles will give naval planners real concern when operating anywhere nearby the Chinese mainland.
The Chinese submarine programme has been especially vigorous. For most of the Cold War, China operated outdated Soviet-era coastal submarines. In the 1990s, China purchased Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines, and has been launching two indigenously-built Song-class diesel-electric attack submarines per year for the past decade. It has also developed and launched the high tech Yuan-class diesel-electric attack boat, which may have the silent air-independent propulsion system. Analysts believe that China will in the coming years also launch the Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, further strengthening its already robust submarine fleet. It has surely not escaped China’s notice that US anti submarine warfare capability has atrophied significantly since the end of the Cold War.