Contingencies, Not Domination, Behind Build-up of Chinese Navy

China's navyIn the last several years, the security community has become fixated on the rise of China. In particular, Chinese naval expansion has been the cause of growing alarm among its neighbors, international observers, and military strategists. Concerns have been intensified by the increasingly assertive attitude Beijing has adopted toward foreign policy, typified in its recent territorial spat with Japan. However, a closer inspection of Chinese naval policy, operations, and importantly, vessel procurement indicates that the Chinese are likely preparing for strategic contingencies and not for hegemonic domination of the high seas.

National Defense University professor, Bernard Cole, describes the Chinese naval buildup as “moderate,” and instead focuses on China’s improvements in the education and training of sailors (including the development of a professional non-commissioned officer corps, similar to the ROTC) to improve operational mobility, organization, and logistics management. Improvements in training and personnel are perhaps the most crucial aspect in developing a modern navy, and the Chinese are gaining invaluable experience through engaging in overseas operations as far away as the Gulf of Aden.

Chinese vessel procurement is a telling indicator of the strategic interests of Beijing. Indeed, it appears that China is much more concerned with its own littorals than it is at extending its reach. For example, China currently lacks the ability to sustainably project power over long distances. China only has five replenishment ships, of which only two are new. Furthermore, while it has continued to pursue joint operability with other branches, China’s navy remains years away from fielding aircraft carriers, and lacks integral naval aviation logistical units, such as AWACS and air-to-air refueling capabilities.

Instead, China has focused on developing capabilities to control and respond to contingencies in its own backyard. The 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis influences much of the Chinese program of modernization. This episode (coupled with lessons learned from the history of the Cold War) convinced Chinese naval planners that they should not attempt to match U.S. strength, but rather modernize with specific strategic goals in mind. Chinese modernization appears to be geared toward assuring continued access to sea-lanes of communication, vital to sustaining economic growth, and future contingencies surrounding Taiwan.

Relations between China and Taiwan have lately improved, and Chinese naval modernization does not appear to be directed toward the forceful repossession of Taiwan. Importantly, China currently lacks large-scale amphibious capabilities that would be necessary in an invasion. Rather, Chinese modernization seems to follow the established doctrine of “minimal deterrence,” in the event there is a replay of the 1996 Crisis. In particular, the growth of China’s conventional submarine force appears to be directed primarily at preventing potential U.S. military intervention by increasing the costs to unacceptable levels. This stance is further supported by China’s development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. In line with the aforementioned doctrine, China is attempting to counter U.S. strength through developing limited capabilities aimed at exploiting U.S. weaknesses, thereby somewhat insulating Chinese policy from the effects of U.S. pressure.

Contingencies over Taiwan were indeed vital in influencing Chinese naval modernization. Today, however, access to sea-lanes of communication (SLOC) has become the major driving force behind Chinese naval expansion. Continued access to the SLOCs is vital to sustained economic growth, on which the Communist Party has staked its legitimacy. It is hardly surprising, then, that China has engaged in efforts to secure its littorals, home to several critical lanes of commerce. However, these efforts have been viewed with suspicion by neighbors and exacerbated by China’s increasingly assertive attitude, exemplified in its territorial claim to the South China Sea.

Chinese proximity to important SLOCs has given rise to the fear that China does not need to develop far-reaching capabilities to dramatically influence the international community. This fear is particularly strong among import-reliant neighbors, such as Japan. Indeed, many neighbors view China’s improved anti-access/area of denial capabilities, despite claims that they are defensive in nature, as threatening to their economic interests and security.

Concerns over Chinese expansion, combined with the improved naval capabilities of Japan and South Korea, have ignited the potential for a regional arms race despite the increasing integration of East Asian economies. Although China is indeed expanding its influence, the naval modernization need not lead to heightened conflict. Given U.S. alliance commitments and the importance of the region to world economic stability, heightening tension or the outbreak of conflict would prove disastrous. It is therefore imperative that the U.S. and its allies engage in more open dialogue with China over the future security structure of East Asia.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.