Yes, China Could Have a Global Navy
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Yes, China Could Have a Global Navy

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My colleague Prof. Bernard ‘Bud’ Cole doubts China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) can transform itself into a global force by mid-century, realizing founding father Adm. Liu Huaqing’s vision of a navy that commands an expanding belt of offshore waters before taking its place alongside the U.S. Navy as a world-straddling fleet. Writing in the Naval Institute Proceedings, Cole—a veteran U.S. Navy surface warfare officer and author of The Great Wall at Sea—deems Chinese maritime strategy “antithetical to historic naval strategic thinking, whether formulated by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, or any other maritime strategist of note.”

I’m not so sure. Importing ideas from abroad is never straightforward, but Chinese strategists read the classic works attentively—more so than their contemporaries in the West. They have fused concepts drawn from the greats of sea power with China’s land-warfare traditions. Chinese maritime strategy is an alloy between East and West, land and sea power. To me it’s almost beside the point whether the PLA Navy grows into a global force. Beijing sees pressing interests at stake in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. So does Washington, judging from its current maritime strategy, which vows to stage “credible combat power” in these two oceans for the foreseeable future. These are the theatres that matter—for both nations.

An Intellectual Shortfall?

As Bud sees it, an intellectual deficit fetters China’s maritime ambitions. It takes two closely related forms. First and foremost, China, a continental power steeped in land warfare, thinks in terms of “defending fixed and limited areas at sea.” As Cole tells it, Liu urged the PLA Navy to construct forces “capable of exerting sea control out to the First Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kurile Islands, through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, then through the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago.” He envisioned consummating this first phase of naval development by 2000—a benchmark the navy conspicuously failed to meet.

“By 2020,” continues Cole, the PLA Navy should be able to “exert sea control out to the Second Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kuriles, through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then through the [Mariana] Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago,” enclosing much of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea within a zone of Chinese maritime supremacy. The fleet would commence global operations by 2050.

Cole points out that Liu made a career move unthinkable in the U.S. armed forces, ascending the army ranks before assuming command of the navy in the 1980s. According to Cole, the first two phases in the PLA Navy chief’s strategic design “reflect a traditional continentalist view: armies operate in and across solid geography, cued to lines of defense, advance and withdrawal, and logistics lines…There are no lines at sea, however, which calls into question both the maritime applicability of his theory [and] the ultimate goal of his eloquent plan for modernizing the Chinese navy” (my emphasis).

Second, Cole faults the PLA Navy for overreliance on “anti-access” and “area-denial” weaponry to shut adversary forces—chiefly the U.S. Navy—out of East Asian waters during a Taiwan contingency or some other clash along China’s nautical periphery. He suggests this constitutes a static, passive approach inimical to global navies. Under Beijing’s anti-access strategy, diesel submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), stealthy catamarans, and other short-range or shore-based weapons erect a dense, “layered” defense against forces that venture into China’s geographic environs. By pummeling forces steaming westward across the Pacific, PLA defenders could ratchet up the costs of intervention so high that a U.S. president would hesitate long enough for Beijing to accomplish its goals. Better yet, Washington might desist from a rescue effort altogether.

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