Last month was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). At the naval parade held to commemorate the event, in front of delegations from 29 countries, PLAN Commander General Wu Shengli declared that Beijing intended to build aircraft carriers, spurring widespread speculation over China’s blue-water ambitions.
So what should we make of Beijing’s assertiveness and openness about its carrier plans? My advice: ignore it.
Traditional measures of naval power fail to give an accurate picture of China’s maritime ambitions and capabilities. Beijing currently lacks the hardware and skills to keep a carrier at sea, especially under wartime conditions. So even if there is the political will to commit the necessary resources, it will be many years before China joins the exclusive carrier club.
Thus, it is in the murkier arena of unconventional weaponry – the modern-day, real-world equivalent of the sling and stone David used to defeat Goliath – that represent the truest indication of China’s nautical prowess. Indeed, Beijing already boasts a range of non-traditional (or what the Pentagon calls ‘asymmetric’) capabilities that could unsettle Asian maritime stability and pose problems far beyond Chinese shores without it ever building a carrier.
Over the past decade, China has introduced a variety of disruptive technologies designed to make US and Allied naval operations in the Pacific more hazardous. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union possessed an arsenal of powerful, manoeuvrable anti-ship missiles that could skim just metres above the water at supersonic speeds. Today, Chinese engineers and scientists are mastering similar technologies.
Chinese planners have long assumed – correctly and realistically – that the PLA would fight from a position of weakness should it be pitted against the United States, a vastly superior military power. Missiles, however, being relatively cheap and easy to mass produce, offer an excellent chance of evening the odds.
A long-range cruise missile costs as little as $500,000 – a pittance for China – while a single US cruiser is worth around $1 billion. To put it another way, one US aircraft carrier would literally buy 10,000 missiles. Missiles are also tremendously difficult to defend against, as evidenced in the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the UK, when a single French-built Exocet missile sank the Royal Navy’s HMS Sheffield.
While the warhead did not detonate upon impact, the speed of the projectile (clocked at over 1100km/h) and the inferno caused by the remaining fuel in the missile’s fuselage were sufficient to doom the Sheffield, which has come to symbolise the vulnerability of modern warships.
Five years later, the US Navy found itself in a comparable situation as it conducted patrols in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq-Iran ‘tanker war’. Two Iraqi anti-ship missiles struck the USS Stark, killing a fifth of its crew in fires that took 18 hours to extinguish.
Chinese analysts are known to have carefully examined the two incidents to draw conclusions about the efficacy anti-ship warfare.
An Asian ‘no-go zone’
Beyond its operational lethality, Beijing also looks to its missile force for its strategic effects. Chinese strategists believe the threat of missile strikes could force US carrier groups to keep their distance, effectively erecting a no-go zone along the Asian littorals.
How large this nautical safe haven might be is anyone’s guess, but US military planners are clearly troubled by recent trends. Successive annual reports published by the Pentagon assert that ‘China is seeking to hold surface ships at risk through a layered capability reaching out to the “second island chain” [which runs from the Kuriles in the north through Japan, the Bonins, the Marianas and the Carolines, and down to Indonesia in the south].’ This implies that the Chinese are seeking the capability to deny US military access to Asian waters by unleashing salvos of accurate missiles that could reach as far as Guam, a major hub for American power projection.
If the Chinese are able to fully develop ballistic missiles, Beijing would, for the first time, be able to launch long-range (over 1600km) attacks against maritime targets direct from the mainland – a scenario the Pentagon is clearly taking seriously.
So under what circumstances would China create such a contested zone? A crisis or conflict over Taiwan would undoubtedly trigger attempts to deny US military access to the region. The Chinese fully expect Washington to call on its carriers should it ever decide to intervene in a cross-strait conflict, and recognise that aircraft carriers would play a crucial role in clearing the skies above and the seas around Taiwan of PLA forces. Beijing therefore plans to use the missile threat to deprive – or at least deter – the US of this option.
China’s calculus is an entirely rational response to past events. In 1996, Beijing lobbed missiles into waters near Taiwan to intimidate the island’s citizenry on the eve of a presidential election. However, the Chinese leadership learned to its dismay that the military was impotent when US President Bill Clinton responded with the dispatch of two carriers near the strait. That bitter lesson compelled the Chinese to redouble their efforts to avoid future embarrassment.
But Taiwan is not the only prize. The ‘China seas’ – the Yellow, East China and South China Seas – have long been regarded by Beijing as its offshore preserve. Heavy maritime traffic, driven by fellow Asian nations’ voracious appetite for Chinese goods, plied these waters in dynastic times. Indeed, these nautical thoroughfares were integral to the China-centric maritime order, which collapsed after the fleets of China’s last dynasty suffered humiliating reverses at the hands of Western imperial powers and Japan.
China’s capacity to influence events at sea with its missile force could thus buttress Beijing’s sense of entitlement over large bodies of Asian waters. Whether the Chinese would seek to employ its arsenal as an arbiter of US military presence in Asia remains to be seen. But that very possibility suggests that America’s undisputed dominance on the high seas and pre-eminent position in the region cannot be taken for granted.
Historical, strategic and operational considerations stimulate China’s pursuit of disruptive technologies at sea. We should therefore expect Beijing to lavish resources on its arsenal for the foreseeable future. The Chinese missile threat to maritime affairs is a real and growing one that is far more serious than the very distant problems that China’s carriers could ever pose.
Policymakers in Asia and Washington should therefore ignore the media hype surrounding Beijing’s blue-water aspirations and prepare for the less visible but more pressing missile challenge in the years ahead.