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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.