Boys Toys vs. Geography

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Boys Toys vs. Geography

Does geography trump military hardware when trying to understand China’s naval potential?

If it’s true that the last stories of the year have offered a glimpse of the trends for what’s to come, then one can only hope that minute-by-minute assessments of the latest developments in Chinese naval capabilities won’t stifle the debate on East Asian security for 2011. There’s a real risk, though, that issues of strategy will just get boiled down to technical discussions about kits and boys’ toys.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t still assess capabilities. On the contrary, studies of the assets and platforms China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is procuring are important for at least three reasons: they offer insights into the priorities of the naval service, a look at the potential of the country’s defence industry, and as a result, an insight into the strategic thinking behind China’s vigorous quest to join the club of the world’s top naval powers.

So, what were the big naval stories of last year? Just before Christmas, Beijing admitted it was building a 50,000-ton, conventionally-powered aircraft carrier to join the fleet in 2014, one year earlier than anticipated. It also said it was planning to press into service a nuclear-powered flat-top by 2020.To add to the drama, Chinese officials went on to confirm that the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag was to join the PLAN’s pennant list in 2012 as a training platform.

Right after Christmas, from the columns of the Asahi Shimbun, Adm. Robert Willard, Commander of US Pacific Command, affirmed that China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), also known as the ‘carrier killer’, had now achieved initial operational capability.

These two pieces of information prompted international analysts to swing into action, with the closing days of 2010 seeing the first assessments of the wider implications of these new developments, especially in regard to the ‘carrier killer’. Some went as far as to suggest that these new capabilities are a sign of a future that ‘is arriving much sooner than expected’, one in which China is getting a dangerous step closer to mounting a naval challenge to US regional dominance.

The idea here is that as these capabilities reach full operational status, Beijing will be able to deny access to US carriers in the waters of the basins adjacent to its shores, the East and South China Seas and, as a result, gain control of such areas. Together with the PLAN’s fast growing submarine fleet, these capabilities would, according to some analysts, be the keys to the strategic balance of North and South-east Asia because they’d be enough to offset the advantages of US naval power.

Is this true? Are China’s capabilities turning the tide of regional power? The answer is more complicated than this question implies. First and foremost, by focusing on the ability of Chinese assets to undermine American dominance, the risk is that we forget to account for the importance of one critical factor in any strategic assessment: geography. As Nicholas Spykman eloquently put it in the early 1940s, whilst economic, political and military power evolve over time, ‘the facts of location’ don’t.

In the East China Sea, geography doesn’t favour Chinese ambitions. The Ryukyu and Gōto Islands and the island of Miyakojima are enduring geographic features that complicate any designs the PLAN might have on sealing off and controlling the East China Sea. Before sinking US carriers, Chinese missiles have to deal with Japanese geography.

How does geography favour Japan? In two ways. First of all, these islands offer a critical advantage in monitoring, deterring and eventually bottling-up Chinese naval forces. During the Cold War, Japan’s Self-Defence Forces performed a similar role against the Soviet Union, sealing the country’s three major straits (Tsugaru, Tsushima, and La Pérouse). Today, the construction of advanced facilities for intelligence gathering on the islands of the East China Sea is one clear reminder of their key strategic role and of the Japanese shifting attention south-west.

Secondly, the islands of the archipelago of Japan remain a primary platform for projecting power in the western Pacific. In the 1980s, former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made the point that Japan was the United States’ unsinkable ‘carrier’ in the Pacific. About a century earlier, Inagaki Manjiro, a senior Japanese diplomat who had studied British history at Cambridge, made a similar point. He warned counterparts in Britain that if places such as the Ryukyus and Miyakojima were ‘well looked after’ by the Japanese fleet in Sasebo, the core sea lanes of the British Empire in the Pacific would be severely threatened.

Inagaki wasn’t trying to threaten Britain — on the contrary, he was just making a case for Japan’s strategic position in North-east Asia. And Inagaki’s words didn’t fall on deaf ears, with Britain eventually signing an alliance with Japan in 1902 to secure its interests in the region. And the Japanese proved their point as well, gaining regional sea control in two different wars against China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05).

So, what does geography tell us about this debate on China’s growing capabilities? In the debates on North-east Asia’s shifting naval balance, geography certainly empowers Japan, lending it the potential to be a decisive player.

Yet depending on the scenario, considerations of the strategic value of geography also apply to other actors. South Korea, with its proximity to the Strait of Tsushima, and Taiwan are also extremely important, and their geography may offset some of the advantages provided by specific capabilities.

All this means that discussions of capabilities can’t be kept in a strategic vacuum, and new assets don’t automatically produce ‘game changers’. More variables need to be considered for any assessment of East Asian military balance to be accurate, and these variables depend, in turn, on specific scenarios. How? And how much? The debate is open.