In the opening session of this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese government reaffirmed its plans for continuing maritime expansion. The announced plan did not involve the seizing of new territory, or military threats to its neighbors, but rather a massive expansion of China’s civil sector maritime presence globally.
In his work report to the NPC on March 5 2016, Premier Li Keqiang was expansive in his description of China’s civil sector maritime ambitions. He announced that China would “work with other countries and regions to build overland economic corridors and maritime cooperation hubs.” The expansion of China’s civil sector maritime interests has already been enormous, following both the growth in China’s sea-borne trade and its policy of having more of that trade carried by Chinese ships. For example, an excellent 2015 study by Dennis Blasko observes that in the decade to 2014, “the China-owned [merchant] fleet has more than tripled in size.”
The strong articulation by Li of previously-known plans for civil sector maritime expansion follows China’s confirmation in November 2015 that it had agreed with Djibouti to build a military logistics base in the Indian Ocean. The purpose according to the Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman at the time was to be “significant for the Chinese army to fulfill its international obligations and safeguard global and regional peace and stability.” This was a reference to China’s peacekeeping deployments in Africa and anti-piracy naval missions (i.e. protection of shipping). In terms of China’s peacekeeping commitments, in December 2015, with just over 3,000 troops and police, China was the seventh highest contributor of uniformed personnel numbers to UN missions. In September 2015, President Xi announced that China would establish a standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers.
Statements from China about “peace” need not be taken at face value, especially since there is a campaign in some quarters of the country for it to build overseas naval bases for hard power projection as opposed to logistic support bases. But we might note that in the preceding seven years (since 2008), China has had on average just under ten ship visits per year visit the Indian Ocean region mostly for anti-piracy missions. By March 2016, according to its Ministry of Defense, China had completed the deployment of 21 small naval task forces (3 ships) to escort merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden region, with the latest returning force arriving home in Sanya in the South China Sea on March 9 this year. The 22nd task force was already in the Indian Ocean by late December 2015. In 2013 and 2014, China and the United States held joint anti-piracy exercises in the patrol area. In December 2015, China’s naval ships in the Arabian Sea held their first anti-piracy exercise with NATO.
It should be no surprise and no threat that China, the biggest national economy in the world on the latest IMF PPP estimates for 2014 revised February 17 2016, would want logistic support bases in the Indian Ocean (to help look after the biggest national merchant fleet in the world, ten navy ships a year protecting its merchant ships and a planned peacekeeping force of 8,000). (The European Union is the second biggest single economy in the world on the latest IMF PPP data, and biggest in the world on nominal GDP.)
We could also take account of a likely slowdown in the rate of increase of China’s defense spending as its annual economic growth rate becomes smaller. On current indications, in ten years time, China will probably be building fewer warships, not more, than it is now. There is also a strong body of opinion in China’s armed forces that is opposed to over-extension of the country’s military assets in politically unstable regions bordering the Indian Ocean when it is challenged to measure up to U.S. and Allied maritime power in contested close-in sea areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea.
We might also note the that General (ret.) James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, in his annual threat assessment for the U.S. Congress in February 2016, a global tour d’horizon of more than 30 different threats to U.S. interests delivered in some 29 pages, did not appear to mention once a possible threat by China to international commercial shipping. Where Clapper does mention sea lanes, as part of the geopolitical competition by the United States around the periphery of Russia and China, he says that they (China and Russia) will avoid direct threats: “They will almost certainly eschew direct military conflict with the United States in favor of contests at lower levels of competition.” His list of threats (some five things) does not mention attacks on commercial shipping.
He does mention “cyber” among his threats. According to my assessment, including my 2014 book, Cyber Policy in China, it is that country’s clear intention to match or surpass U.S. military capability in cyberspace. This is its preferred domain of military competition and confrontation, not in naval platforms for interdiction of merchant shipping in the open ocean. In spite of China’s wealth, there is an upper limit to its naval ship-building unless it moves to war mobilization. Moreover, if it wanted to attack commercial shipping in the South China Sea, it would use land-based first assets first, those based along its 4,000 kilometers mainland coast on that sea or on its very large island of Hainan (coastline of 1.500km), both of which dominate the northern entry to the sea.
Of equal significance, as I noted two weeks ago, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) assessed in 2015 that China assigns to its navy a high priority task of assisting in the protection of international commercial shipping.
Meanwhile some arms of the United States government continue to contradict the DNI and ONI with the idea of a putative threat from China to commercial shipping in the South China Sea.
On March 8 2016, General Lori Robinson, then Chief of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, warned Australia and the world, in the context of what she called “China’s militarization of the South China Sea,” that if key countries did not conduct freedom of navigation operations to assert the right to “fly and sail in international airspace [sic] in accordance to international rules and norms” in the region, they would “risk losing it.”
On 18 March 2016, Reuters summarized the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson in a one-on-one interview as saying that “China’s pursuit of South China Sea territory … threatened to reverse decades of open access and introduce new ‘rules’ that required countries to obtain permission before transiting those waters.” Reuters further paraphrased him as saying that “the United States planned to continue carrying out freedom-of-navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed South China Sea geographical features to underscore its concerns about keeping sea lanes open.”
Both of these statements are loosely-worded but clearly imply an imputed Chinese threat to commercial shipping (“sea lanes”).
It would be useful if U.S. officials positing an implied Chinese threat to commercial shipping or to the right of merchant fleets to sail in international waters were to take steps to substantiate their claim and to publicly reconcile their views with those of key intelligence agencies in the United States, such as the DNI and ONI, which seem to be 180 degrees different. (Freedom of warship transit in a country’s territorial sea is another matter.)
In January 2016, Reuters reported that commercial shipping companies and their insurers did not see any higher risk to their operations as a result of rising tension between China and its neighbors over the island disputes in the South China Sea.