How far will China's navy reach?

China's growing naval prowess is not so much an exercise in belligerence but an effort to shake off the shackles that have long confined its strategic reach. Nevertheless, there is reason for concern: Any China-related military conflict is most likely to be triggered and fought at sea.
Graham Ong-Webb
16 March 2011

Often discussed in the same breath as the country's economic rise, China's military modernization is nothing new. However, the specific issue of the country's naval development has gained critical currency only in the last few years. Last year alone saw a flurry of media reports and discussion pieces on the subject. A recent editorial in The New York Times highlighted what it saw as China's intention to challenge US naval supremacy in the Western Pacific, its aggressive pursuit of the disputed offshore islands in the East and South China Seas and how "Washington must respond, carefully but firmly."

Should we be really concerned? The short answer is yes - and not because China seeks to become a belligerent power. There is currently no evidence to suggest that China seeks to exercise the kind of global hegemonic ambitions often depicted by hawks and the far-right in American, Indian and Japanese political circles. Yet, China's naval power merits concern because the maritime realm is the most probable dimension in which a Chinese-related military conflict will be triggered and fought. There are several reasons for this.

Securing economic, geopolitical aims

One reason has to do with China's rapid economic growth. History tells us that a country's naval power tends to be directly linked with its economic strength, and China, in recent times, is no exception. To be sure, China has been slow to shift away from its deeply entrenched continental mindset. After all, 14 land powers share territorial frontiers with China, while only six maritime countries surround the Chinese coast. However, now that China has settled 12 out of 14 land border disputes with its neighbors, the sea is the final frontier that Beijing feels compelled to secure.

There is some urgency in this quest. The bulk of global trade is only possible by sea-borne freight. Beijing feels it must protect the sea lanes that make both the movement of goods (about 90 percent of its import and exports) and the importation of resources and energy possible, without which China's economy would come to a standstill. The Chinese leadership also feels that it must protect what they perceive to be its maritime territorial sovereignty. As a matter of "coastal defense", the Chinese Navy is compelled to secure its 18,000-kilometer shoreline.

Now, the Chinese Navy is attempting to secure the country's claim to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles from the country's continental shelf. The legitimacy of the zone is disputed by Japan, and non-combatant US naval vessels have made excursions into these waters in the past. Chinese officials would also like to claim about three million out of nearly five million square kilometers of "coastal real estate" in the East and South China Seas and the Yellow Sea that contain a wealth of oceanic natural resources. Beijing is simply striving to establish better naval control of these areas than its regional neighbors, propelling the Chinese Navy toward the concept of "offshore defense" - a venture that increases the chances of a naval skirmish.

Not only economic interests but also geopolitical ones are fueling China's naval prowess, particularly in the Taiwan Straits - the most likely naval flashpoint. Beijing's option to unify Taiwan with the mainland by military force if necessary is no longer fuelled by ideology but geopolitics. As a 2008 US government report correctly put it, Taiwan is regarded as the focal point from which China can 'break out' from its centuries-long containment along the Pacific littoral" and secure its immediate security environment within the Asia-Pacific region. This 'line of containment' is also known as the oft-mentioned "first-island chain" running south from the Japanese archipelago to the Philippines, which naturally denies the mainland from having unfettered access to the oceanic thoroughfare. The possession of Taiwan would permanently break China's geographical curse. As a result, the Taiwan Straits - as well as the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea - have become pressing geopolitical priorities that drive China's expansive military planning and procurement.

Naval prowess - only one head of the hydra

Moreover, it must be said that China's growing 'naval power' is not only about an expanding fleet of ships and submarines. All militaries advancing towards greater sophistication seek to integrate their sea, air, land and space capabilities in order to increase overall lethality, efficiency and effectiveness. The Chinese Navy is but one head of the country's military hydra. In a larger sense, the Chinese Navy should be regarded as a placeholder for the sea, air, land, and space-related capabilities that China will bring to bear against an adversary in the maritime realm of conflict.

US strategic planners have been increasingly concerned with China's recent development and impending deployment of certain air, land, and space-related capabilities, which affect Taiwan's ability to impede a Chinese naval advance toward its shores and also the US Navy's capacity to project its military power in the Straits. Some of these developments include an aircraft carrier, anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter-aircraft and anti-satellite missiles.

In January, the Chinese media published a video of China's first aircraft carrier undergoing sea trials. The bid to field a Chinese aircraft carrier may look like an unwieldy proposition because of the indomitable presence of 11 US aircraft carrier groups policing the world's oceans. The Chinese carrier, which is an upgraded version of a partially-built vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998, is generations behind American carrier technology. However, China's plan to field an aircraft carrier since the 1990s is not an arms-race-type rejoinder to the US. It is simply borne out of a pragmatic need to use carrier-based aviation to better protect China's surface fleet. The Chinese Navy has calculated that an aircraft carrier with 40 aircraft on board would generate a combat effectiveness of between 200 and 800 land-based fighters in air-support functions. A Chinese carrier, supported by a fleet of attack submarines, may allow the rest of the Chinese Navy to secure an area up to the 'second-island chain' stretching from the Aleutians to Papua New Guinea.

China's fledgling anti-ship missile capability threatens US aircraft carriers. In early January, the US Navy's intelligence director acknowledged that China's anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, had finally reached its initial operating capability, leaving US carriers open to attack. Previously, US observers were sceptical that Chinese engineers could master the complicated science of hitting a manoeuvrable target such as a moving aircraft carrier. With the impending deployment of the DF-21D, its immediate role would be to deter the US Seventh Fleet from approaching the Taiwan Strait. The key target would be the USS George Washington, the aircraft carrier assigned to this fleet which carries the US Navy's best strike aircraft capable of attacking Chinese sea, air and land targets and destroying vital Chinese radar systems. These carried-launched aircraft have a range of less than 1,000 kilometers. Therefore, the DF-21D, which shares a similar range, is intended to keep the aircraft belonging to the George Washington out of lethal range.

The US and Taiwanese airborn-early-warning aircraft that support their respective navies are also not immune from attack. It was reported in early January that the Chinese military successfully test flew their own indigenously-built fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft known as the J-20 "Black Eagle", designed to creep up and destroy those aircraft that would otherwise provide real-time intelligence and surveillance of a Chinese naval attack. Until recently, US officials have played down China's ability to make advances on its J-20 program launched in the 1990s. In fact, the American defence community previously estimated that the J-20 would be operational only around 2020 when it is more likely to be ready in about three years from now.

Lastly, the Chinese military is very close to fielding an anti-satellite missile capability that stands to cripple the network of satellites that the US military depends upon to marshal and coordinate its air, land and naval forces effectively. Chinese military planners realize that the US military satellite and communications network is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. While it makes the US military more effective and efficient, it is also reduced to fighting 'blind, deaf and dumb' without it. In January 2007, Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a direct ascent anti-satellite missile, based on the same missile airframe used for the DF-21D, hence proving that it could obliterate US satellites in low earth orbit.

These developments bolster the Chinese military's confidence in achieving what it views to be its national security imperatives. Whether or not China does possess hegemonic aspirations, it is becoming clear that Beijing is removing the shackles that previously placed limits on its strategic reach. In particular, as a recent US Office of Naval Intelligence report has noted, the Chinese Navy has begun removing the geographical limits to its 'offshore defense' thinking. It appears to have been given the mandate to venture "as far as [its] capabilities will allow it to operate task forces out at sea with the requisite amount of support and security." The deployment of a Chinese naval convoy to the Gulf of Aden to protect the country's shipping from Somali pirates in early January is instructive. The question that should now be asked is how much maritime security is really enough for Beijing. The answer determines how far Beijing will ask its navy to go.


This article first appeared on the International Relations & Security Network (ISN).

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