For the past decade, while the West has been consumed battling Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Central Asia, China has been engaged in a rapid and impressive effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.
For years, China focused its military spending on the People’s Liberation Army, while the Air Force and Navy served as little more than adjuncts to the Army. But with the launch of its first aircraft carrier next month, the rest of the world – and especially the United States’ Asian allies – is taking note of how dramatically things have changed. China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.
China’s build-up is driven by a two-pronged strategy. First, China seeks to deny access by the United States and other naval powers to the Yellow, East China and South China Seas, thereby (1) establishing its own equivalent to the way the United States saw the Caribbean in the 20th century, from which its blue water navy can operate globally; (2) dominating the natural resources and disputed island chains such as the Spratly and Senkaku Island chains in those seas; and (3) giving it the capacity to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force and without US interference, if necessary. China’s assertiveness in confronting and harassing Asian and US civilian and naval ships in the region over the past decade shows a sustained level of determination on this front.
Second, China seeks international prestige and a power projection capacity in the Pacific and Indian Ocean sea lanes by deploying multiple aircraft carriers and fifth-generation stealth fighter-bombers. The booming Chinese economy has become ever more dependent on imported minerals and oil from Africa and the Middle East, and the ability to protect its Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca sea lanes is a responsibility that China is no longer willing to delegate to other powers.
The officially reported Chinese military budget for 2011 is $91.5 billion, a massive increase from its $14.6 billion budget in 2000. China acknowledges that a third of its spending is now devoted to its Navy, yet even this big leap is almost certainly understated. China is notoriously non-transparent with its military expenditures, and most analysts believe that it spends significantly more on its armed forces than the publicly reported number. Further, Chinese military labour costs for its soldiers, sailors and airman is a fraction of what Western governments spend, where salaries, benefits and pensions are usually the largest share of defence budgets. This allows China to devote more of its budget to building weapons systems than its competitors. Unlike Western governments, which are slashing defence spending, China will continue to increase spending in coming years.
A key goal of China’s maritime build-up is access denial. While multifaceted, China is building its access denial strategy around two backbone platforms: the DF-21D (Dong Feng) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), described as a ‘Carrier Killer,’ and an ever expanding and modern attack submarine fleet. US Navy Pacific Commander Adm. Robert F. Willard has characterized the DF-21D as already having reached the Initial Operational Capability stage of development, meaning that they are operable, but not yet necessarily deployable. Taiwan sources report that China has already deployed at least 20 ASBMs. Whether deployed now or in the near future, the US Navy believes China already has the space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment. China also employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information necessary to employ the DF-21D. With a recently reported range of 2,600 kilometres, these missiles will give naval planners real concern when operating anywhere nearby the Chinese mainland.
The Chinese submarine programme has been especially vigorous. For most of the Cold War, China operated outdated Soviet-era coastal submarines. In the 1990s, China purchased Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines, and has been launching two indigenously-built Song-class diesel-electric attack submarines per year for the past decade. It has also developed and launched the high tech Yuan-class diesel-electric attack boat, which may have the silent air-independent propulsion system. Analysts believe that China will in the coming years also launch the Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, further strengthening its already robust submarine fleet. It has surely not escaped China’s notice that US anti submarine warfare capability has atrophied significantly since the end of the Cold War.
But China’s maritime capabilities are set to extend beyond access denial, into power projection. The systems that have gained most international attention are China’s planned aircraft carriers and its new fifth-generation fighter bomber. Anytime now, the PLA Navy will commence sea trials for its first carrier, the ex-Ukrainian Varyag, which has been renamed Shi Lang. The former Soviet ship is larger than European carriers, but one-third smaller than US Nimitz class carriers. Moreover, China has publicly confirmed it has a second, larger, conventionally powered carrier under domestic construction that will likely be launched in 2015. China has planned or is constructing a third conventionally-powered carrier and two nuclear-powered carriers are on the drawing board, with a planned completion date of 2020.
Equally important as the warships, are the aircraft China plans to deploy on its flat tops. The main fighter-bomber in the PLA Navy carrier air wing will be the J-15 Flying Shark, which under current configuration is comparable in size and capability to the US Navy’s retired F-14 Tomcat. The jet will have limited range given its weight taking off from the ski deck-configured Shi Lang, however, it’s believed that advances in Chinese aeronautics and avionics, as well as a catapult launch system on forthcoming carriers, could put the J-15 in the same performance class as the USN F-18 Super Hornet in the future. China may also have developed a carrier-based airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft, which would be a major development. An Internet-sourced photograph that appeared in mid-May, meanwhile, shows a corner of a model of what is clearly a small AWACS aircraft inspired by the E-2 Hawkeye and the unrealized Soviet Yak-44 designs.
To put China’s carrier programme in perspective, with the retirement of the USS Enterprise this summer, the United States will have only ten carriers to meet worldwide commitments; China will likely have five carriers devoted to the Asia-Pacific region alone.
China’s build-up is being noted even in the popular Western media, which has given significant coverageto China’s prototype fifth generation twin-engine stealth fighter-bomber, the J-20 Black Silk. The jet is larger than the USAF F-22 Raptor and could prove to be comparable in capability (although some US observers claim it is more similar to the slightly less sophisticated US and allied F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be the frontline US carrier fighter).
The J-20 prototype took off on its ‘maiden’ test flight in January from an airfield in the southwestern city of Chengdu, flying for about 15 minutes on the same day then-US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, sending a strong political message and earning the jet a spot on evening news programmes worldwide.
China is believed to have received a major assist in developing the J-20 by obtaining materials from a downed US F-117 Night Hawk from Serbia, as well as from the believed cyber theft of JSF plans from US defence contractors. (With this in mind, US planners should also assume that Chinese engineers have had access to the rotor tail of the stealth helicopter that was ditched in the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan).
These rapid and high-level technical achievements have apparently surprised many Western observers, and the consensus is that the West has consistently underestimated the strength of China’s military industrial capability and its determination to expand and modernize its armed forces, especially the PLA Navy. But it should now be more than clear that the world is facing a significant challenge to a maritime system that has been dominated for the past 200 years by Anglo-American navies. How the United States responds to China’s challenge will define the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific for the rest of the century.
Robert C. O'Brien is the Managing Partner of Arent Fox Los Angeles. He served as a US Representative to the United Nations. He can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien.