Foreign observers of China’s growing naval prowess might be worried by what they’ve seen in recent years. Around a hundred new warships have come off the country’s slipways since 2001, while another dozen are under construction. Chinese ships are, on average, getting bigger and more powerful as well as more numerous as Beijing builds what is shaping up to be the world’s biggest submarine fleet, as well as new types of anti-ship missiles and the nation’s first aircraft carriers. One older Russian carrier is being refurbished and US analysts expect the first fully home-built Chinese carrier to enter service by 2015, with the possibility of more to follow.
All this is a far cry from the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s status even a decade ago as a coastal weakling, and has come at a time when the US Navy has actually shrunk by around 10 percent, as several new ship classes arrived late and over-budget. As a result of China’s rise and its own budgetary problems, ‘the United States will inevitably have to face…a progressive loss of maritime supremacy in the South China Sea and its environs,’ Andrew Davies, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Diplomat.
But observers say a shifting balance of power doesn’t have to mean high tensions, let alone open warfare. Much of what China does in the maritime realm amounts to an elaborate, and expensive, form of diplomatic theatre. Carriers, especially, are more for show than for practical military use, analysts say. Where the People’s Republic of China is building real naval capabilities, most are actually best suited for cooperating, rather than competing, with other world powers.
Indeed, there are signs that China intends to be a full partner in a loose, emerging alliance of developed world navies aiming to suppress piracy and seaborne terrorism and to provide rapid relief in the wake of coastal natural disasters.
China’s rush to build amphibious ships and to deploy vessels to Somali waters both support this theory, while even the carriers could potentially be part of Beijing’s plan for a peaceful naval rise, inasmuch as they help boost the PLAN’s reputation and facilitate a leadership role alongside the United States in future naval alliance.
‘There’s much more reason to be positive’ says Eric Wertheim, an independent US naval analyst and author of the authoritative Combat Fleets of the World. ‘I do think China wants to fit into the “global commons.” We just have to be careful make sure they see we are trying to treat them as equals.’
What’s the PLAN for?
It’s not easy assessing the Chinese navy. Many state functions in Beijing are closely held secrets and none more so than the grand strategy and planned force structure of the Chinese military. Such secrecy means there’s a significant element of guesswork among analysts hoping to understand what China’s leaders actually intend their navy to do.
But for every analyst, Taiwan is the starting point. The Chinese navy is ‘still being modernized to deal with possible US intervention in a Taiwan scenario, in which Beijing uses the PLA against the island,’ says Bernard Cole, a professor at the US Naval War College. ‘But PLAN planners are clearly looking at “post-Taiwan” scenarios, as well.’ These might include disputes with Japan over East China Sea resources and defending shipping lanes to the Middle East.
Some analysts, though, say China’s military is still incapable of mounting an invasion of Taiwan. History suggests a successful beach assault against a well-armed, concentrated enemy like the Taiwanese army would require around 60,000 assault troops. But even after a decade of rushed production, the PLAN has enough sealift ships to haul only 15,000 troops in a single wave–and that’s assuming no losses to Taiwanese and American ships, planes and subs.
For this reason, Beijing is unlikely to attack Taiwan, but remains committed to the appearance of an imminent danger–what Robert Farley, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, calls the ‘credible threat to seize Taiwan.’
‘If the Taiwanese don’t believe that Chinese military intervention is at least possible,’ Farley says, ‘then they might become unpredictable.’
This ‘Taiwan theatre’ helps explain the PLAN’s coming carriers. ‘If we were in a war, I don’t think China’s carriers would last very long,’ Wertheim says. After all, the United States and its closest European and Asian allies already possess no fewer than 20 aircraft carriers capable of launching fixed-wing strike aircraft–not to mention a combined submarine fleet approaching 100 vessels, compared to China’s roughly 60.
China will never be able outgun rival navies with its flattops, but it doesn’t have to. ‘I don’t think one or two carriers are going to change the military dynamics so much,’ Wertheim says, but the visually impressive vessels ‘will change perceptions.’
Can we all get along?
Aside from Taiwan and the question of its ‘show carriers,’ China is focusing most of its efforts on developing defensive forces, as well as forces optimized for cooperating with its current rivals, rather than simply blasting them out of the water.
Defensive ‘anti-access’ systems–in China’s case, anti-ship missiles and submarines–make perfect sense for any powerful country. ‘Nations that aspire to regional hegemony have big navies; it’s just what they do,’ Farley says.
China has long aspired to be a regional and even global power, but as recently as the mid-1990s was incapable of even protecting its own coastline. In many ways, the most surprising thing about China’s naval development is how late and ultimately modest it has been, considering China now has the world’s second-biggest economy. ‘I try to think of it from their shoes,’ Wertheim says. ‘I don’t think they’re acting unreasonably in building a bigger fleet.’
The Chinese ‘have this huge impact on the world economy,’ he says. ‘They have a tremendous amount of economic sea lanes to defend. It’s really, really important to remember that in some ways it would be irresponsible for them as a country not to have some sort of build-up.’
And this build-up has the potential for far-reaching–even global–benefits if it can work alongside the United States. ‘The simple presence of naval power reduces the anarchy and lawlessness that otherwise might prevail on the high seas,’ Farley says.
In 2008, China mobilized three warships to join the now 40-strong international fleet patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to protect commercial ships from increasingly aggressive and more numerous Somali pirates. While most nations’ vessels sailed singly inside static ‘patrol boxes,’ the Chinese adopted a World II-style convoy system — that is, sailing alongside merchant ships — that has actually proved the most effective way of intercepting pirates, according to naval experts and shipping officials.
On the basis of this experience, late last year the PLAN asked to take a turn leading the international naval committee that coordinates the counter-pirate operations. The European Union backed China’s request, and in January the so-called ‘Shared Awareness and Deconfliction’ body, also known as ‘SHADE,’ approved the move. Beijing must now sign off on the PLAN playing this larger role. Leadership in SHADE would actually require the PLAN boost its contributions to the counter-piracy fleet with additional vessels.
In addition, the PLAN had reportedly also volunteered to support the US-led naval force that patrols the sea lanes between Somalia and Yemen, aiming to intercept illegal arms shipments between Islamic terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East. Until this year, the Japanese navy had provided a naval oiler to refuel the US task force, but in 2007 Tokyo considered suspending the assistance. At that point, the PLAN reportedly made an unofficial offer to make one of its oilers available, though according to the Japanese newspaper The Daily Yomiuri, US officials turned down the offer.
China is one of the few countries that has naval forces to spare, thanks to the recent surge in ship construction. The UK had to divert a frigate from its traditional Falklands patrol to add to its own counter-piracy efforts, while even the US Navy, the world’s biggest, suffers ship shortages. In January, an amphibious ship bound for training off the West African coast had to defer its deployment in order to join a US hospital ship and aircraft carrier rushing medical and engineering assistance to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Yet for all its deep capacity, the PLAN still doesn’t have the broad range of skills of the US Navy and other, more experienced maritime forces–especially for humanitarian missions. ‘Their military is not very flexible right now,’ Wertheim says. ‘When they watch the kind of stuff the US does in responding to Haiti and other events, [they] really stand in awe…I think China watches us to try to mimic us.’
That mimicry has had a powerful shaping effect on the Chinese navy. In October 2008, the PLAN accepted its first purpose-built hospital ship, code-named ‘Ship 866’ and fitted with ‘comprehensive functions and facilities equivalent to level-three class-A hospitals,’ according to the People’s Daily. Ship 866 joined the Chinese fleet just three months after the acceptance of the first of six large amphibious assault ships, themselves fitted with high-tech surgical bays.
Bob Work, a former naval analyst now serving as undersecretary of the US Navy, said Ship 866 has its roots in an event with parallels to the Haiti disaster: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed as many as 225,000 people in 11 countries.
In the aftermath of that disaster, many countries rushed aid to affected countries by way of amphibious ships and hospital ships, just as they did in Haiti six years later. The US Navy was the biggest naval contributor. China was virtually alone among major powers in having no ships capable of helping out, Work has stated. ‘The tsunami embarrassed them. The Chinese respond to embarrassments in very focused ways.’ In this case by rushing humanitarian-optimized ships into production.
With its new, American-style humanitarian fleet in service, the Chinese now needed expertise in operating it. In April 2009, a Chinese team visited the US hospital ship Comfort while that vessel was delivering medical aid in Colombia. ‘They’re…interested in how we do our business,’ explained Comfort’s captain, James Ware.
‘It’s not necessarily true that an increase in Chinese maritime capability harms the United States,’ Farley says. Indeed, the PLAN’s rise could even benefit not just the United States, but the whole world. But forging an era of naval cooperation will mean the United States and its allies accepting the shared leadership role that Beijing so clearly craves–and granting the PLAN the degree of respect it deserves. That would require changes some might find hard to accept.
For one, the US Navy would have to give up what it perceives as its right to go anywhere, anytime; Davies says this would mean the Americans would probably have to cease collecting intelligence in international waters bordering the Chinese naval base on Hainan Island. Last year, Chinese trawlers harassed a US spy ship operating in the area, resulting in a brief increase in tensions.
But it is also important to note that what didn’t happen in that instance is as important as what did. Even when a US Navy destroyer and a Chinese patrol ship steamed into the disputed zone, no one opened fire. ‘Armed confrontation is possible, but it’s hardly inevitable,’ Farley says. ‘There are identifiable flash points which could start a militarized dispute between the US and the PRC, but it’s easy to envision a future in which none of these points are sparked.’
‘A lot of countries have strong navies and are friendly with the US,’ Davies notes. China could, and should, be one of them.