“Death by Blue Water Navy” Distracts from China’s Real Military Focus


(Editor's Note: Please see "China's Real Blue Water Navy" and Greg Autry's response.)

Greg Autry’s passionate response to our recent piece on “China’s Real Blue Water Navy” is somewhat ironic, as he has missed our point. As our substantial body of work on the matter in multiple venues including The Diplomat amply demonstrates, we view China’s naval and military development with the utmost seriousness. Our work is read regularly by military and civilian policymakers, as well as the general public, because we research issues in depth and offer a fact-based, measured account based on what the evidence suggests. We value our readers’ trust and strive to keep our work independent of external ideological influences that could bias it.

Our key objective in writing “China’s Real Blue Water Navy” was to advance an explanation that we believe—based on substantial and objective research—better reflects the true nature of the challenge China’s rising naval power poses for the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region than does Autry and Peter Navarro’s book “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action.” The reality is that to properly formulate a strategy to respond to emerging events—and ideally to shape them proactively—one must understand issues for what they really are. Catchy book titles and spicy diatribes usually don’t inform the public or support effective policy. Rather, they offer the illusion of clarity in a way that can mislead—dangerously so, in this case, given the issues at stake.

That said, the book’s content and general thrust gave us a great opportunity to distinguish hyperbole from reality. We regret the fact that we could not quote the entire book for “context,” as Mr. Autry seems to wish we had. However, authors bear the ultimate responsibility for their content and have a responsibility to support their assertions with solid evidence. This is particularly the case of claims that are categorical and provocative, as in the book’s very description by its publisher: “The world’s most populous nation and soon-to-be largest economy is rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin. … China’s emboldened military is racing towards head-on confrontation with the U.S.”

Navarro and Autry fail to substantiate this over-the-top claim. Like other parts of “Death by China,” chapter eight, entitled “Death by Blue Water Navy: Why China’s Military Rise Should Raise Red Flags,” produces far more heat than light. “China is rapidly building its own countervailing fleet of flattops,” they charge, even though Beijing only just commissioned the refitted ex-Ukrainian carrier Liaoning (which they refer to, incorrectly, as “Shi Lang”) on  September 25, 2012. “Over the next five years, China will send a much bigger message,” they project. “It is expected to send a fleet of at least five flattops roaming around the globe—and no doubt running into the U.S. Navy.” Once again, Navarro and Autry miss the critical dynamics of Beijing’s actual interests, intentions, and capabilities. In fact, it is land-based ballistic missiles, rather than any “blue water” activities, that constitute China’s most formidable area of military development vis-à-vis the U.S. But, rather than focus adequately on this area—a subject which we ourselves have addressed extensively precisely because of its importance—the authors choose to pack in such unsubstantiated rhetoric as “the People’s Republic may already be practicing for Armageddon off the California coast.” In Mr. Autry’s response, he chooses to focus on a hypothetical fighter-on-fighter “dog fight,” which is far from the most likely combat scenario, and on Chinese aircraft carriers, which—even when China finally does have multiple hulls—are highly unlikely to be intended for use in high-end conflict. Whether used to inflate or deflate Chinese military capabilities, this fast and loose sensationalism distracts from the real issues and detracts from the vital objective of ensuring that China’s military development is given the attention that it deserves.

One of the risks in publishing analyses on any subject is the possibility that individual portions of the argument may give impressions that are at odds with the overall message the authors desire to send. No one is immune to this and all writers face this problem from time to time. What’s telling is how one responds and what one learns from the experience.

Taking umbrage when flaws and misstatements are pointed out or corrected by others is an unfortunate reaction because it hinders learning from shortcomings that may affect the fundamental credibility of a narrative. We question ourselves relentlessly to see whether our ideas are informed by the best possible data and analysis. And when we discover that the world has changed, we do our utmost to make sure that facts and events don’t leave us behind. Our own views of Chinese naval development have evolved markedly over time as we learned more, stress-tested our analysis, and accepted feedback from others who offered constructive critiques and insights.

We respect Mr. Autry and Mr. Navarro’s foray into the China analysis arena and welcome the chance to discuss substantive issues with them. The crucible of challenge and scrutiny ultimately yields improved analysis from which everyone can benefit.

November 27, 2012 at 04:03

If both sides start throwing ICBM's at each other's infrastructure, it will be a full nuclear war. One reason the Soviets never used ICBMs for conventional munitions, is the USA would never be able to tell if they were strategic nuclear armed or not. And you do not take your enemies word for it when such matters are on hand. IF China were to use an ICBM for a conventional weapons launch at anything but a carrier task force, most American command staff would advice the President to return exchange with Minuteman and Trident missiles armed with nuclear warheads. 
No, I can not see an ICBM exchange being anything but a threshold event to a full nuclear war.

November 26, 2012 at 21:01

The point of these articles would be to alert a largely ignorant American people that the PRC does not just manufacture cheap toys and consumer goods. We were made aware of this average citizen's blind spot in our policy towards asia quite clearly in 1941 at Pearl Harbour. The point of a blue water navy is influence and the projection well forward of state power. Will an ASEAN type alliance serve to counterweight the growing military might of the PRC/PLA/PLAN? Time will tell. While we adjust and downgrade parts of our military our primary opponents in this century are upgrading and expanding theirs. Multiple simultaneous flashpoints are likely scenario as time goes on. Personally, an alliance based around India, with Japan, South Korea, Australia etc makes the most sense. Who has the best motivation to work together with us? The academic community and the military arms themselves may be our best source, as our State Department has historically failed us time and again… the professional apologists for seemingly any aggresion against our country. 

duke chan
November 26, 2012 at 17:44

Stop dreaming, are you smoking something? can Chinese ships go that far to gulf of Mexico to be bargaining chips since they are made in China? are they equiped with Roasted Duck Missles(similiar to Tomahawk version) to destroy the NY city and the US is wactching and do nothing? wake up!

duke chan
November 26, 2012 at 17:38

I disagreed with you, a war today will be much closer to China than the US. ICBM does not pose a big treat any more because the China is boxed and because of new techonolies such as missle defensed systems, laser, champ technologies …….  The China is boxed, look at the circle the US has created lately to contain China. Burma is strategically important  because of oil /natural gas pipe lines to China in case of Malacca strait is blocked but it is running away from China, Vietnam is another example.  The other sides is Australia, with 2500 marines are stationed there with missle defense systems no to mention Japane/South Korea……  China is BOXED  period and BTW,  its economy is collaped less than a month if choked since 85% of their energy is imported.

November 26, 2012 at 04:50

Leo R and Autry & Navarro forget about the topic is about Navy. Not ICBM.

November 25, 2012 at 06:03

"Our work is read regularly by military and civilian policymakers, as well as the general public, because we research issues in depth . . ." Yuck.
That your work is widely read adds little to the strength of your arguement (with which I generally agree). By your standard, because Tom Friedman is read widely, he must be researching issues in depth–but not really. 

November 24, 2012 at 11:46

while Navarro et co. have a point, the problem with their work is that they overexaggerate to the point of fearmongering, which is the last thing any sensible author should do; it cheapens whatever credibility they have, and throws into doubt whatever they say. will China construct five carriers? perhaps. That day is, however, at least thirty years off, and as such China is not the naval threat we make it out to be. Don't get me wrong, though; one of the CPC's goals is the removal of US military presence from the Asia-Pacific, so that they might have the room to re-establish their old suzerainty over the region and all nations therein. That's about the limit of their ambitions, though; they would be fools to take on the US anywhere but within their home turf, just as the US will not start a war against China save under the most dire of interventionist circumstances.

Talking point
November 23, 2012 at 20:27

While I don’t like writings that are anti China, but I respect their authors if they are sound and intelligent. Mr. Autry and his partner are neither. They are simply not up to standard.

November 23, 2012 at 13:50

China doesn't want to go to the the U.S west coast. At most it will take the western pacific as a buffer zone.
When China builds up their naval strength to a certain point, they will propose this "deal" to divide up the pacific to the U.S. If the U.S rejects, China will send some carriers to the Gulf of Mexico as bargaining chips. That would be the maximum extent to this game I think.

November 22, 2012 at 23:16

Blue Water Navy nowaday is only symbolic, if the war is between China and US, will major be in a form of ICBM exchange, where industrial infrastructure of both side will be substantially damaged, and at the end of this war, both side, US and China, will return back to third or fourth world in this planet…This is somthing can foresee without  genius. I just want to know who will be this historical idiot start this loss-loss war good for nothing.
Story is different now, before the ICBM, a strong Navy means you can attack another nation without being attacked, now it's simply a different story, at least when you refers to nation like China.

Leonard R.
November 22, 2012 at 22:26

@Collins & Erickson:  "Our work is read regularly by military and civilian policymakers, as well as the general public, because we research issues in depth and offer a fact-based, measured account based on what the evidence suggests…." 


That tells me two things. 
1. Your work is read and valued by the same people who have botched US-China policy for over two decades. 
2. You are academics who may feel your turf is threatened by newcomers who can point out the obvious – with greater persuasive power than you have been able to muster (and who sell more books too). 
Autry and Navarro's central thesis might be summed up as this. "Our trading partner is preparing to kill us." 
I find that brief, eloquent and upon considering recent history, persuasive. 
So Mssrs. Collins and Erickson, I ask for your opinion. Is our trading partner in fact, preparing to kill us? You are famous China scholars. Your work is widely read by those 'in the know'.  And this seems to be a question that can be answered. It's not one of life's unanswerable conundrums.
I'm just a member of the public. But I can suggest a few answers. There is yes, no or maybe, Or perhaps 'yes but we're preparing to kill them too'. Or 'yes but trading partners usually prepare to kill each other'. Or maybe even 'yes, but the US will commit national suicide before China can manage to pull it off''. 
Surely it's a question that deserves an answer. But funny thing – in your two articles here, you don't go near it. That's why I ask. And If the answer is 'yes', what should the US do?
Your two hit pieces castigate Autry & Navarro's on some facts without addressing the central question they raise. And I'm sorry, that is disingenuous. It also smells of academic pettiness and perhaps a little envy.
Speaking for myself, a member of the public, I'm glad Autry and Navarro are making academics uncomfortable. 
I'm glad someone has finally come out and stated the obvious. And thanks in part to them – a lot more Americans are willing to state the obvious about US-China relations today. 

November 22, 2012 at 12:06

I love Mr. Autry book – its a piece of science fiction.

Christopher Johnson
November 22, 2012 at 08:56

The PLAN's construction plan can be expected to portray a growing set of int;erwoven capabilities.  Over time, it could mirror some USN fleet capabilities.  But at the outset expect gradual improvements.  Loose talk about five carrier battle groups in five to ten years might be a tad hyperbolic.  Not that the Chinese couldn't build the ships — they could, and probably fairly capable — but developing and integrating all the pieces takes years, some would say decades, of practice.  Also, the Chinese have a penchant for cheap panaceas: (airplanes and pilots and carriers are expensive); thus their stock of missiles keeps growing.

November 22, 2012 at 01:29

I read both articles. Comparing with Navarro and Autry, the Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson pairs are smarter. They are correct that there will be no dog fights if any high end wars ever start in the future. It will be a quick ICBM exchange. China’s blue water navy is not designed for that. It is intended for “local wars” (from Mr. Hu’s speech) closer to home. In the history, China always won in long last wars. Having the tradition and capability to wage sustained war is China’s strength. According to Sun Tze, it is stupid to wage long lasting wars afar. All of you need to read Chairman Mao’s famous book “Sustained War”.

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