James Holmes

Comparing Chinese Naval Power to the Soviet Navy

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James Holmes

Comparing Chinese Naval Power to the Soviet Navy

In some respects, China poses a tougher maritime challenge than did the Soviet Union.

If you’re struck by China’s rise to nautical prominence, get a load of Soviet naval history. Though disparaged today, Soviet seafarers were worthy adversaries. Indeed, contemporary Russia occasionally makes noises about reclaiming their legacy, and has moved to reestablish its influence in such expanses as the Sea of Okhotsk.

Moscow long coveted naval might. Josef Stalin flirted with a Mahanian battle fleet in the interwar years, to little avail. Soviet industry proved unequal to the challenge of manufacturing battleships and other heavy combatants. In the 1960s Moscow rededicated itself to sea power under the tutelage of Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the father of the Soviet Navy. By the late Cold War the Soviet Navy had fused naval power with land-based implements of sea power—American tacticians forever worried about Backfire bomber raids venturing out to smite us—to erect a dense “blue belt of defense” off Soviet shores. Moscow practiced anti-access long before the term was coined.

At the same time the Soviet Navy competed with Western navies to encircle Eurasia from the sea. Sir Halford Mackinder met Alfred Thayer Mahan under the rubric of Soviet strategy. In geopolitical parlance, the Soviet Union occupied Mackinder’s Eurasian heartland, a vast plain centered on Siberia and Central Asia. The Soviet empire’s central position allowed Moscow to radiate continental power along interior lines. Leveraging a central position is much like operating along the radii of a circle, making use of short distances and swift communications with trouble spots around the perimeter.

The Soviets also strove for Mahanian command of the seas that washed against Eurasian coasts. Sea power enabled Moscow to shape events along exterior lines, operating around the circle’s circumference. It could influence what Yale professor Nicholas Spykman termed the rimlands of East Asia, South Asia, and Western Europe. Executed successfully, this sweeping vision would have made the Soviet Union master of Eurasian—and thus world—politics.

Soviet ends made sense, but the ways and means for achieving them were suspect. The quality of Soviet implements of maritime warfare, and of the crews that took warships and aircraft to sea, remained unclear to Western analysts throughout the Cold War. Soviet Navy assets were outwardly impressive, bristling with guns and missile launchers. But they remained “black boxes” to outsiders. The fleet never underwent the stern test of combat, the true arbiter of military performance. There were some symptoms of trouble—a dirty or rusty ship is a surefire warning sign—but there was no way for Sovietologists to prophesy confidently short of provoking a sea fight.

If its quality was dubious, the Soviet Navy boasted quantity. The Okean maritime exercises of the 1970s threw a shock into NATO navies, demonstrating that Moscow could surge combat-capable fleets into multiple theaters simultaneously. Or, the Soviet contingent in the Eastern Mediterranean outnumbered the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That show of force further impressed Soviet Navy-watchers while arousing anxieties in a U.S. military that was suffering through its “hollow” post-Vietnam era. The Soviet military was on the march, it seemed, while American budgets, force structure, and manpower were in freefall.

Is Chinese sea power a throwback to the Cold War? Yes, but no. Like the Soviet Union, China is a continental power asserting itself on the high seas. Its leadership thinks of sea power as a synthesis of geography, land-based air and missile forces, and fleet operations in nearby waters and skies. That’s the essence of anti-access and area denial. Chinese operations and tactics evoke the Cold War. But the resemblance stops there. True, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the father of China’s navy, implored Beijing to field a global navy by midcentury. Contemporary leaders, nevertheless,evidently cherish few strategic designs outside East and South Asia. They appear content to carve out a zone of exceptionalism in Asia’s maritime environs, modifying the Asian order to suit Chinese power and purposes. Amassing serious combat power in, say, the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic remains a distant prospect.

And that makes sense from a geopolitical standpoint. Today’s China is not the Soviet Union of the late 1940s, a power bent on subverting its neighbors and exporting its political system. That’s why Beijing’s oft-voiced fears of American containment are misplaced. The analogy doesn’t fit. Nor does China occupy a central position in the heartland from which it can project power throughout Eurasia. It is a rimland power that evidently sees little point in staging naval forces throughout the marginal seas ringing Eurasia. The PLA Navy can mount a stiff challenge in the expanses that matter, namely the China seas, the Western Pacific, and perhaps—someday—the Indian Ocean. It is already mounting such a challenge. But if Beijing casts its gaze farther abroad, it risks overextending itself while wasting resources needed for economic development and other priorities. Why take the risk?

In a way, China poses a tougher maritime challenge than did the Soviet Union. It can hope to amass local military preponderance in East Asia by concentrating its attention, energies, and forces there. That’s sound strategic logic. Will Beijing continue exercising self-discipline, remaining focused on critical places on the map? Or will it follow the Soviet example, challenging the United States and its allies all around the Eurasian rim? Time will tell.