James Holmes

How to Measure China’s Maritime Power

Whether Beijing emerges as the dominant naval power in the region will depend largely on what others do.

Yesterday, over at Foreign Policy, the Naval Diplomat held forth on the evolution of Chinese sea power over the next decade or so. Check it out. Bumper sticker: it’s tough to predict how swiftly and surely PLA Navy hardware and crews will mature, but China will remain a seafaring power in the broadest sense of the term. It will remain a power to reckon with.

Surly lot that they are, the editors refused to let me ramble on ad infinitum about this big, squishy subject. Forsooth! One major idea left quivering on the cutting-room floor was that naval competition is a relative, rather than absolute, process. Or rather, maritime balances are relative things. Asian geography situates so many powers so close to one another that land and air forces can shape events at sea. Indeed, Corbett could’ve been writing about present-day Asia when he defined maritime strategy as the art of determining “the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.”

Where China’s maritime project stands a decade hence, then, depends not just on how the PLA’s progress but on how its competitors fare. China can improve its seagoing forces and the shore fire support that shields them all it wants in absolute terms. But if its rivals compete effectively, they can flatten the upward trajectory of Chinese sea power — preserving such advantages as they enjoy today, and staying ahead in the competition.

If they falter, on the other hand, even a so-so Chinese effort to amass maritime might could leave Beijing the regional frontrunner by default. That’s a real prospect. The U.S. military’s budgetary travails hardly need recounting. Naval leaders now speak darkly about a 257-ship fleet, down from today’s already overstretched force. Japanese military budgets remain essentially flat. Tokyo’s much-discussed uptick in defense spending is a pittance, less than 1 percent of its GDP. India’s naval project trails China’s by a wide and, in certain respects, growing margin.

On the other hand — the array of possible futures recalls Harry Truman’s wish for a three-handed economist — Beijing’s domineering conduct these past few years could prompt fellow Asian powers to make common cause. That’s what realist theories of international relations predict. By keeping their sea power strong and aggregating their capabilities, in short, America, its allies, and its friends can have considerable say in the maritime balance. A fateful choice awaits them.