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Unfriendly Waters for China

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New Leaders Forum

Unfriendly Waters for China

China as been keen to bolster its naval strength. But could its advances prove strategically counterproductive?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) derives much of its legitimacy from ensuring stellar economic growth. Such growth is, of course, resource intensive, and those who consider the CCP’s brand of stability a virtue would err in discounting the role secure energy supply lines have to play in keeping the political status quo. This is true now more than ever, as Beijing’s quest for oil, metal and minerals takes it far from its own shores.

As China develops complex economic and strategic interests in Africa and the Middle East, what hinders freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean and much of the Pacific will concern Beijing mightily. However, the discomfort with sharing maritime security responsibilities closer to home is unsurprising. Considering the relative strength of those patrolling the waters (mainly Japan and the U.S.) the fear is that in times of crisis, access to critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) could be blocked. Or worse, Beijing might be forced to make a compromise not in keeping with its long held logic of sovereignty over a region that extends far beyond what international law would seem to permit.

In addition, the combined weight of 21 of the world’s biggest navies is, by some measures, 6.75 million tons. Remove the U.S. Navy and that leaves the global fleet 46 percent lighter at about 3.63 million tons, b some estimates. Though not the most accurate gauge of naval prowess, the skewered weight distribution, combined with the U.S. Navy’s pound for pound superiority, surely can’t bode well for a rising power wary of the status quo.

If there’s little room for bargains over territorial sovereignty, the CCP presumably wishes to redress the imbalance. Unfortunately, what it has to show for three decades of naval modernization are a handful of nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines that lag behind those of the world’s premier navies, an aircraft carrier they’re only beginning to learn how to use and Anti-Ship Ballistic missiles (ASBM). Of these, only the ASBM really gives Beijing an edge over the competition.

But for the near future, blue water ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled. A refurbished Soviet era aircraft carrier, ASBM’s and a few unstealthy nuclear submarines won’t allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to conduct complex operations far from its shores, even if China’s sailors can master their new boats.

 Given the bulk of what the PLAN presently fields, the implications are likely to be felt closer to home. The large fleet of Song, Ming and Romeo class diesel-electric submarines, catamarans, Landing Platform Docks and other short-range and shore-based weapons will influence the day-to-day choices countries in the vicinity make—especially regarding whether to align their policies more closely with China or the United States.

China will be eager to see its maritime neighbors embrace its naval modernization effort. Such support would be more valuable considering the possible loss of a reforming Burma as an alternate energy corridor, which will have led some in Beijing to question the prudence of banking on vastly expensive and highly tenuous relationships to secure resources.

However, if China feels inclined to continue engaging in brinkmanship of the sort seen in the Scarborough Shoal standoff, most are unlikely to warm to its naval ambitions. As those further afield, such as India and Australia, face a more capable PLAN, friendly rhetoric from Beijing will provide little reassurance. Japan and South Korea, too, would find it better to balance against bourgeoning capabilities instead of hoping military planners in Beijing don’t act on their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Australia has already embarked on the initial stages of a $40 billion revamp of its submarine fleet. India recently inducted an Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine and is also building its own nuclear submarines and another aircraft carrier. Tokyo is enlarging its submarine fleet. South Korea is also modernizing its naval and amphibious forces.

The cost of miscalculation here is high, and it’s hard to see how such an environment could work in China’s favor. Ostensibly, a stronger navy should allow Beijing to throw its weight around with greater ease. But if Chinese naval modernization is spurring its neighbors to do the same – and if some of its powerful neighbors look more than capable of playing catch-up – it’s difficult to understand what advantage the PLAN hopes to produce in the long term.

Hegemony in the Pacific and Indian Oceans seems unlikely. Yet anything less could leave Beijing more isolated and vulnerable in a powerful, distrustful backyard.
Kailash Prasad is a research associate at the Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi. All Views are his own.