Naval Posturing: China’s New Bullishness is Premature

With the escalation of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, and the increasingly hawkish tone Chinese leadership and Central Military Commission projects, the question is whether China can put its money where its mouth is, backing its claims with superior military force.

There is no question that the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has made great strides in the past decade, moving from an obsolescent coastal force to a modern navy with truly three-dimensional capabilities, second to very few. It has refitted and commissioned an aircraft carrier, built a force of modern air-defence destroyers, built a large force of modern conventionally-powered submarines and acquired an impressive maritime strike capability in the Russian Su-30.
The exact strength of the PLAN is not clear, but it will soon have at least:
1 Aircraft Carrier
16 Modern Destroyers (counting from Types 052B and 051C on)
18 Modern Frigates
80+ Stealth Missile Boats
32 Modern Conventional Submarines
6-8 Modern Nuclear Attack Submarines

While these numbers are always in flux, and China has a great many older hulls the upgrades of which are unclear, the overall picture is clear: a strong and growing modern navy with developing capacity in every major tactical dimension- surfce, air and subsurface.

Arguably, in terms of equipment, it has just overtaken the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as the region’s premier navy.

But it is not yet the premier naval force in the region. The US Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka Japan, includes one aircraft carrier, three cruisers and eight destroyers. The US Navy has the following assets based in the Pacific as of right now:
5 Aircraft Carriers
12 Cruisers
33 Destroyers
32 Nuclear Submarines

This force is by itself more powerful than any or all navies in East Asia, and unlike regional navies, it is a true expeditionary force.

Add to that the 38 destroyers, 2 helicopter carriers and 16 conventional submarines of the JMSDF and the 12 destroyers, 1 helicopter carrier and 12 conventional submarines of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), and one gets the sense that China might not feel as strategically secure as it would like everyone to think. Granted that numbers do not always tell the story- one can compare capabilities, training, doctrine and a hundred other factors.

What the PLAN can do at this point is deny access to the Chinese coast to any comer. Its anti-access/area denial capabilities are quite strong, ranging from its missile boats and conventional submarines to naval strike aircraft to anti-ship ballistic missiles. China’s most clever approach to the problem of the US Navy is to turn the latter’s reliance on computers and the electromagnetic spectrum into a weakness. This approach may include jamming, electromagnetic pulses, cyber warfare and a number of science-fiction sounding technologies that China is alleged to be developing. In short, China can make it impossible for anyone to operate in its own coastal waters, and make life very difficult for anyone operating in the South and East China Seas.

But China is not yet strong enough to dictate regional policy unilaterally, and should be much more reticent than it seems to be to provoke the other major powers. Given the dependence of all regional economies on the steady flow of trade and oil through the sea lanes, any prolonged conflict would amount to an economic suicide pact. On a purely military level, China would do very ill to provoke Japan into any kind of arms race. Not only is Japan to China what Malta was to Italy in World War II- a “giant unsinkable aircraft carrier” off the coast- but Japan’s present military force represents a very low share of GDP, despite its economic woes. Japan could do much better, very quickly, and unlike China, it already has the technological base.

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8 thoughts on “Naval Posturing: China’s New Bullishness is Premature

  1. […] As I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Strait, through which a great deal of China’s trade runs. While China can try to ease its complete energy vulnerability (especially to India, whose mastery of the Indian Ocean China could not easily contest) by building trans-Asian pipelines, the fact remains that any major navy could cripple Chinese trade, and with it the Chinese economy, in a matter of weeks by sitting at one end of the Malacca Strait. To overcome this vulnerability, China would have to outmatch the United States, Japan and India combined. China can try to dominate the waters within the “First Island Chain”, but in the end, they are dependent on the good will of others, and there is nothing they can do about it. […]

  2. […] As I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Strait, through which a great deal of China’s trade runs. While China can try to ease its complete energy vulnerability (especially to India, whose mastery of the Indian Ocean China could not easily contest) by building trans-Asian pipelines, the fact remains that any major navy could cripple Chinese trade, and with it the Chinese economy, in a matter of weeks by sitting at one end of the Malacca Strait. To overcome this vulnerability, China would have to outmatch the United States, Japan and India combined. China can try to dominate the waters within the “First Island Chain”, but in the end, they are dependent on the good will of others, and there is nothing they can do about it. […]

  3. Mishmael says:

    Not really, as China can reorient its economy towards domestic consumption, reroute its energy from overland sources, and build up long-range shore based weapons which will enable revenge attacks in case of blockade. To say that China must become beholden to the “goodwill of others” is a provocative way of saying that you would like China to accept a less-than dominant position. However, if your aim was to realistically draw China into such a position without war you must accept major stratiegic concessons to China.

    • You are reading in an argument, and a set of assumptions, that I did not make. My view is that no confrontation between China and the powers around it will be of great profit to anyone. China has stated that it wants a multilateral global system, and it’s stuck with it. It may become the foremost power in the region, but the others together will be able to check any undue military adventurism. As for stating that the idea that China could be anything less than dominant is “provocative,” well, I think we see which side your bread is buttered on.

      China is a long way from re-routing its energy supplies overland, as the World Energy Outlook 2012 made clear, and is at least a decade away from even a partial transition to domestic demand. China’s nationalist excesses with regard to Japan and the island chain disputes are happening now.

      • Mishmael says:

        If the smaller Asian countries check China’s power, who will check America’s power? You seem to indicate a preference for China’s permanent insecurity at the hands of a determined coalition, formed not for the sake of multipolarity but against China. Perhaps it is a misreading of your tone, but I find it objectionable that you would place the emergence of true global multipolarity below a narrowly-defined set of mostly anti-China fears. Is it not logical to assume a preference for Chinese regional hegmony if one’s true interest is global multipolarity? DO you think it is possible or even preferable to create a system which will enable countries like Vietnam to challenge China for preeminence in the South China Sea? To do so is provocative to me, because I believe such a system ultimately undermines the peace of Asia, and unnecessarily punishes China for a crime which they have not and might never even commit.

        I also object to your description of China’s “nationalist excesses.” I assume you are aware that Chinese people are not stupid, nor blind, unthinking, and irrational. They are perfectly capable of examining global events in a reasoned way, and still conclude that they support positions x y and z. I further assume that you are aware of the nationalist excesses in other Asian countries, to which my only objection is the fact that you did not mention them in the context of Chinese nationalism.

        Do you have evidence that China is the more militaristic, the more aggressive, or the more threatening to regional peace? To my knowledge, the only way for China to appease its critics is for it to voluntarily impoverish itself such that it cannot afford to defend itself. What do you want China to be? A compliant regime for the US? A vengeful and humiliated power surrounded by enemies? A ruin? China on its own is simply going to continue building itself up. So who is doing the confronting here, China, or the fearful countries who lack the foresight to see that it is their reaction to China’ rise which will determine the future order of Asia.

      • Your long-winded comment is hardly worth the effort of unpacking all the logical holes it contains. I also have no intention of drawing out this discussion with someone who would pick an argument based on specious constructions of articles only tangentially related to this issue, so this will be my final word on the subject.

        Your last paragraph alone makes so many straw man arguments that it reeks of demagoguery. I have no problem with China’s economic rise- on the whole, it is a positive thing for the world. Again on the whole, the promised “peaceful rise” has been handled adroitly (see my post on the Charm Offensive among others). I have no problem with the military modernisation that accompanies this rise- one cannot even say that it has been excessive thus far, and I would not say that it was unless China’s (real as opposed to declared)defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP exceeded that of the United States.

        The issue is a series of inherent contradictions between China’s unilateral actions in disputes with its neighbours and the idea of peaceful coexistence on which its rise in Asia is predicated (again, see my post on the Charm Offensive and the posts on the island disputes).

        On a deeper level, the Chinese people have been told that they have suffered a century of humiliation at the hands of the West and of Japan (with little or no mention that the greatest loss of life in Chinese history was the result of Mao’s rule)- of course they have strong feelings, particularly about Japan. No other country has corresponding animus toward China, except perhaps Vietnam (given its long history of resistance to Chinese rule), which is in no danger of acting on those feelings anytime soon. China is also unusually sensitive about what it regards, sometimes baselessly and in many cases without international recognition even in Asia, as its own territory.

        No other nation in Asia is likely to start a war with China, and while I do not believe the CPC leadership desires war, I believe that it could find itself in a situation where nationalist feeling would force it to take intemperate action in order to maintain legitimacy. And no, populations in the throes of nationalist feeling are not always amenable to reason- witness the United States over the past decade, to say nothing of German and Japanese nationalism in World War II. That is the usefulness and peril of nationalism to the leaders who inspire it.

        I want a strong China, but one capable of making cool-headed policy decisions and negotiating on even footing with other Asian countries with a view to long-term coexistence, just as they did while negotiating the CAFTA free trade agreement with ASEAN (look up “giving six, taking four”). If they did this (and if it were politically possible in China at this moment), nothing else would be necessary to win the goodwill of the rest of Asia, which actually does want to have a friendly relationship with China.

        Until such time as this happens, I can’t say that the US “pivot” to Asia has done much more than inflame Chinese popular sentiments- and yet, the Americans are not coming in without plenty of invitations, from Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and Singapore at the very least. Remove the incentive for those invitations, and the US would find its increased presence harder to justify. Only a few years ago, I would have said that America’s day in East Asia was done, so much goodwill had China managed to gain during its rise. In less than two years, China has squandered a large portion of that goodwill and furnished justification for an American return.

        Once more, let me say how completely I object to your simplification of China’s issues with its neighbours, and my solutions to it. By definition, if China is allowed to take sovereignty of most of the South China Sea, the associated island chains and the Senkakus without fair and open negotiation, the message to all of Asia will be that China can do whatever it wants without consultation. Your view, on the other hand, seems to be that China should be able to do exactly that, and too bad so sad for the other countries involved. That’s what I call provocative, undermining international law in the interests of national power.

        “So who is doing the confronting here, China, or the fearful countries who lack the foresight to see that it is their reaction to China’ rise which will determine the future order of Asia.”

        In other words, if you don’t like China barging into your front yard, you’re fearful and visionless and foolish not to fall in lockstep with the new continental order. These words are almost verbatim the words of the Japanese imperial government when launching their “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”- I trust we all remember how that turned out.

        China doesn’t need to decrease its military power or political influence one whit, nor become “a compliant regime” or “a ruin” in the words of your specious argument. It needs to learn when exerting that power is, and is not, in its long-term interest.

        The true advantage of a multipolar system is this: no power can do whatever it wants at the expense of others without the possibility of being checked. We are heading into a multipolar world, and America’s power will diminish relative to that of other nations. The essential thing is that all the great powers embrace a culture of moderation and consultation rather than unilateralism- and yes, the US has some things to learn on that score as well. But moderation will never happen if blind advocacy of one power or another based on personal political agendas (and I put you right beside the American China hawks in that department) prevails.

  4. Mishmael says:

    Calling my comment long-winded seems like a bit of an overstatement.

    1. China’s claim to uninhabited islands without clear historical affiliation to any one country cannot be equated to Japan’s claim to Korea, Manchuria, the rest of China, Vietnam…etc.

    2.I never opposed negotiations amongst the claimant countries. However, it seems to me that it is China’s adversaries who are refusing to settle with a diplomatic solution. Instead, countries like the Philippines seem to think that they could get a better deal by going to the Hague, while Japan refuses to acknowledge any dispute while building more weapons.

    3. China’s long-term interest lies in achieving true energy security and physical security of its borders. TO achieve the former, it needs to control or possess the means to control vital sea routes and overland routes. TO achieve the latter, there must be a change in the security arraignment in the East China Sea and South China Sea. I do not share your optimistic view that other countries do not want war with China. I doubt in the ability of countries like Japan or even America to resist the influences of fear and jealousy that a rising power can evoke.

    4. “Moderation” as you describe it is also what I hope to see, but from my perspective the burden of behavioral adjustment seems to be far too heavy on China. Its territorial claims are mirrored by those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and a host of others. The transition to multipolarity, of that is indeed where we are headed and not great power conflict, cannot be led by China alone. There must exist a coordinated effort by multiple great powers. Since I doubt that possibility, but still hope for a balanced outcome, I favour the relative increase in Chinese power given the existing disparity between China and the US

    5. Finally, I would like to pressure you to admit that ultimately, if all of what you said became true, it would still amount to Chinese “hegemony” in Asia. There could not be any other future for Asia once the people of China became able to accumulate wealth. Finally, I hope you address my concerns instead of dismissing them.

    • Your “concerns” still amount to a desire to see China get its way over its weaker neighbours (hegemony, as you put it) because you want China to balance the United States. Hmm, put that way, your argument is persuasive in favour of increased US presence. Again, your argument is riddled with holes and bias, but I’ll tackle just one instance, because I have more useful things to do with my time than argue with you.

      “Japan refuses to acknowledge any dispute while building more weapons.” This statement betrays either complete ignorance of the subject or incredible bias. Japan’s air force is already outnumbered by the PLAAF. China has a fixed wing carrier in commission and others building- Japan has none. China is continuing to produce area air defence destroyers in large numbers, while Japan has only six and plans at most two more. China has land-attack cruise missiles, Japan has none. China is on track to outnumber Japan in numbers of every major platform, and Japan is doing nothing about it.

      Now, final warning- further posts on this topic will be deleted. Your methods of argumentation are odious, and have no place on this blog. Go bother the Economist.

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