China is building a two-layered navy with a high-end Near Seas component and a limited, low-end capability beyond. It is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America.
China’s navy is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America the way the Soviet Union once did, if not worse. This despite Peter Navarro and Greg Autry’s over-the-top polemic, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action, in which they claim that “[T]he People’s Republic is moving forward at Manhattan Project speed to develop a blue water navy capable of challenging the U.S. Navy.”
Such statements lack basis in fact and present an ideal strategic teaching moment to remind analysts and policymakers that Beijing’s evolving naval structure and operations yet again show that China is not working off a traditional European, Soviet, or American naval development playbook. Even its most nationalistic and ambitious strategists and decision-makers do not seek what they would term a “global Far Oceans blue-water type” (远洋进攻性) navy any time soon. Yet it is also misleading to argue, as one scholar recently did in The National Interest, that “All but the most hawkish hawks agree that the Chinese military will not pose a threat to the United States for decades.” This is off the mark from the other direction—albeit in a considerably more subtle and thoughtful way. As a rare People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation visited Washington recently for a series of official meetings, it is important to understand where China’s military is headed and why—particularly at sea, where U.S. and Chinese military platforms encounter each other most frequently.
Here is the critical point that both writings miss entirely—China’s military, and navy, are not high-end or low-end across the board. Rather, in addition to domestic security/homeland defense, they have two major layers:
1. China has already developed, and continues to develop rapidly, potent high-end navy and “anti-Navy” capabilities. Like their other military counterparts, they are focused almost entirely on contested areas close to home.
2. It is also developing low-end capabilities. They are relevant primarily for low-intensity peacetime missions in areas further afield.
These two very different dynamics should not be conflated.
The second area has attracted headlines recently. China is in the process of developing a limited out-of-area operational capability to extend political influence and protect vital economic interests and PRC citizens working abroad in volatile parts of Africa and other regions. In essence, China seeks the bonus of being able to show the flag outside East Asia without the onus of assuming the cost and political liabilities of building a truly global high-end naval capability.
But while selected PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels make history by calling on ports in the Black Sea and Mediterranean to include first-ever visits to Israel and Bulgaria, the majority (like the rest of China’s armed forces) are focused on areas closer to home—primarily still-contested territorial and maritime claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas. From a Sino-centric perspective, these are, logically, the “Three Seas”(三海), or“Near Seas” (近海).
It is here, and largely only here—at least in a direct sense—that U.S. and Chinese military maritime approaches conflict. As an established superpower that has played a critical role in establishing the post-War world order, Washington seeks to work with allies, friends, and potential partners to maintain a single global trade system by preserving unfettered access to a secure commons for all, and to prevent the threat or use of force from being used to resolve political or territorial disputes. As a great power that feels wronged by recent history, Beijing seeks space to rise again and reassert control of previous claims by carving out a Near Seas zone of exceptionalism in which established global maritime norms do not apply.
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