Below the Surface

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Below the Surface

The 20th anniversary earlier this month of the Tiananmen tragedy has given China-watchers an opportunity to take stock of their analyses over the past two decades. And, given the recent media and policy attention lavished on China’s maritime ambitions, it is worth looking back at Western studies of the Chinese navy and its impressive advances in recent years.

However, a closer look at many of those predictions shows, at best, a patchy record of success – and, at worst, some worrying analytical shortcomings.

Twenty years ago, the number of specialists on China’s naval development could be counted on one hand, and analysts consistently underestimated the scale and pace of China’s naval modernisation while denigrating the competence of Beijing’s scientific and engineering community. Consequently, actual Chinese nautical advances far outpaced the expectations of many China specialists.

Today, the field is a growth industry that has seen a proliferation of research centres across the United States, and this more diverse and linguistically savvy community of scholars has provided judgments that take Beijing’s maritime aspirations and the Chinese navy far more seriously than previous assessments.

As guarantors of Asian maritime peace, Washington and its allies can ill afford its assessments to be so wide of the mark, and future appraisals of Beijing’s nautical capabilities will benefit from the fresh thinking on Chinese maritime affairs that has emerged in recent years.
When Deng Xiaoping ordered the military to crush the pro-democracy movement in June 1989, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was an object of derision in the West. The mainstream view was that the Chinese military was an insular, poorly equipped and land-bound organisation trapped in the Maoist dogma of a people’s war.

Less than two years after the Tiananmen crackdown, the spectacular display of US military might against Saddam Hussein was seen as proof of the utter inadequacy of the Chinese military in an age of high-tech warfare. Not surprisingly, many experts were convinced that the PLA would remain mired in backwardness well into the 21st century.
Westerners were equally dismissive of the PLA navy (PLAN). In a piece epitomising widespread attitudes in the immediate post-Tiananmen period, the 1990 issue of the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships declared, ‘[PLAN] is still a technically backward and operationally immature navy with rudimentary command and control systems and little high seas experience’ – a sweeping view that was backed by subsequent studies throughout the 1990s.

In 1994, an article in the prestigious International Security journal offered a litany of deficiencies that plagued the PLAN, most notably the lack of modern ships and submarines, shortages in funding and weaknesses in research and development capacity. The author was particularly scathing when forecasting the future of Beijing’s industrial-military complex, stating confidently: ‘The PLA faces the high probability of merely being locked into a higher level of technological obsolescence than is now the case.’ In other words, the Chinese military was expected to fall further behind the West during the course of the 1990s.

With a similar list of supposed inadequacies in mind, a 1996 monograph by the Center for Naval Analyses discounted China’s ability to field a regional navy by 2010. After canvassing domestic production, reverse engineering or acquisitions from abroad as potential avenues for modernisation, the author found that none would meet the deadline for the PLAN. The report went as far as to predict that the development of ‘a regionally oriented Chinese navy’ would not be plausible until 2020.

At the same time, observers also expressed confidence that Taiwan would be able to hold its own against the Chinese navy for years to come. Leading defence analysts contended that formidable geographic features that favoured defence, such as Taipei’s superior air and naval services and Beijing’s limited military options, essentially made Taiwan an impregnable island fortress. Flippant remarks that China’s coercive option in a cross-strait war would be ‘a million-man swim’ resounded around Washington think tanks.

Such indifference persisted well into the new century. But it is now clear that those verdicts were way off the mark.

Significant PLAN improvements

Since 1989, the PLAN has commissioned 10 new classes of destroyers and frigates that are both significantly larger and more sophisticated than their pre-Tiananmen predecessors. They boast new armaments and sensors that have closed critical technical gaps that were once thought to be the Achilles’ heel of the surface fleet and, including the Luyang-II destroyers, which are equipped with state-of-the-art air defence systems that were long considered out of reach for the Chinese.

Most impressive, Beijing has put to sea four new classes of attack submarines since the mid-1990s, a pace unrivalled by any navy in the world. The Song-class entered serial production despite Western predictions that China would abandon it due to technical difficulties, and the sudden appearance of the Yuan-class of submarines – said to be comparable to the best that the Soviets deployed during the late stages of the Cold War – surprised even the US intelligence community.

And although the overall size of the submarine fleet has shrunk significantly over the past two decades, the steep decline reflects the mass retirement of obsolete vessels. The concurrent influx of modern boats has, in fact, significantly boosted the proportion of advanced platforms in the inventory and these qualitative advantages should in theory more than compensate for the quantitative losses and preserve or enhance China’s combat power.

China has also introduced its next-generation fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which could soon be armed with long-range nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States. According to the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Chinese will likely build five SSBNs to maintain a near-continuous presence at sea. Such a deployment pattern would contrast sharply with reports that China’s first and only SSBN never went on a single deterrent patrol after its debut in the late 1980s. Indeed, analysts had previously thought China would possess only two of these older submarines by 2010.

As a result of these advances, the Chinese navy seems poised to assume a respected position on the world stage, and moves over the past six months – Beijing’s deployment of an anti-piracy flotilla to the Gulf of Aden, its hosting of a naval parade and its announcement of plans to build aircraft carriers – have overturned the conventional wisdom that the creaky PLAN would remain feeble for decades.

Analysts changing their tune

Such incontrovertible evidence of progress has swayed those inclined to discount the PLA navy, and the about-face by some China-watchers has underscored the magnitude of the navy’s modernisation. Even previously sceptical analysts now acknowledge that:
China possesses the capacity to deny US naval access to waters several hundred miles off the mainland; Taiwan on its own is no longer a match for China due to a dramatic qualitative shift toward the mainland in the cross-strait military balance; A muscular China will be able to exert ‘hegemonic leverage’ over East Asian waters by the middle of the next decade; The time is already ripe to contemplate the PLA navy’s future extra-regional missions beyond those related to a Taiwan contingency.
Of course, previous assessments were not all wrong, and indeed were prescient in many important respects.

For a start, although the overall growth in force structure is certainly real, it still does not portend a radical shift in the regional balance of sea power. For the surface fleet in particular, the Chinese seem to be engaged in a methodical process of experimentation involving a few hulls across many ship types to gain technological proficiency and operational experience – there’s no evidence the PLA navy has settled on a ship design for mass production. That said, the West should keep its eye on any future decision by Beijing to put to sea a much larger batch of destroyers and frigates.

Second, the Chinese still have a long way to go in ‘software’ areas such as combat readiness, training and education. The PLAN is still an untested force in the rigours of modern naval warfare and it’s anyone’s guess how the Chinese fleet would fare in real wartime conditions. Indeed on this point, China’s persistent unwillingness to engage in serious joint operations with other maritime counterparts beyond superficial port calls and exercises suggests a lack of confidence.
Third, the geographic scope of Chinese naval power is still somewhat limited, especially when compared with the global reach of the US Navy. The PLAN remains riveted to sea denial missions designed to contest American command of the seas along the East Asian littoral and China still lacks the capacity to assert sea control in the blue-water environment.
However, the PLA navy is already in a position to impose its will upon critical transport routes running through the China seas that are the lifeblood of the global economy. In other words, China already possesses the nautical tools to pose severe problems without ever having to catch up to the West.
It is clear, on balance, that China watchers missed many indicators that the Chinese navy was on the threshold of a major transformation and that sanguine conclusions and condescending attitudes persisted for years after the evidence suggested such complacency was misplaced. Policymakers in Washington and Asia would therefore do well to ask themselves some tough questions: What went wrong? Why was there such a chasm between earlier predictions and the actual evolution of Chinese naval power? Why did it take so long to revise outdated estimates?
Answering these uncomfortable questions will be essential lest they again misread Chinese naval developments and further undermine the prospects for regional maritime stability.