July 1, 2009  

Flashpoint: The Great Wall goes to sea

China’s naval renewal raises critical questions for the world

Militarily, China has not been well-known for its navy. The army has long been the dominant service in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a country celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding by Mao Zedong in 1949.

In fact, despite being known as the “Great Helmsman,” Mao was so focused on the army after taking power that it was not until 1953 that he made his first tour of the Chinese navy, spending four days visiting a pair of frigates.

But the once-ignored People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is chiseling off the rust, slapping on a fresh coat of paint — and going to sea like never before.

The navy is showing the flag in Asia and around the world. In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the PLAN held a colorful naval review this spring in Qingdao, which included 25 of its own ships and another 20 from 15 other countries.

But do not be fooled by the pomp and circumstance of ship visits and naval reviews. This is not about vanity. China is serious about its standing in the world and its maritime interests — and it is developing a navy to advance and protect both.

Indeed, the Pentagon reports: “PRC President Hu Jintao called China a ‘sea power’ and advocated a ‘powerful people’s navy’ to ‘uphold our maritime rights and interests’ ” in a 2006 speech.

U.S. ships have already seen some of this up close and personal.

Just two weeks after the Pentagon described the first U.S.-China military-to-military talks as the best ever, Chinese vessels confronted an American ship operating in international waters in the South China Sea.

The affair was eerily reminiscent of the 2001 EP-3 incident, in which a Chinese fighter came too close to a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane, ultimately colliding with it, leading to the brief imprisonment of the U.S. crew and causing a major diplomatic dust-up. In this case, Beijing dispatched five fishing vessels to shadow and intimidate the unarmed U.S. Military Sealift Command research ship Impeccable, which was conducting operations about 75 miles off Hainan Island, where the crippled EP-3 ultimately landed. The flotilla threw timbers in the path of Impeccable, coming within 25 feet of the U.S. ship before finally backing off. The Chinese vessels also tried to snag its towed sonar array.

Fortunately, no shots were fired in anger, other than some high-pressure fire hoses by the American side, likely concerned the Chinese sailors might try to board the ship despite the fact that it was operating outside Beijing’s national waters.

China claims Impeccable was violating its sovereignty by conducting operations within the PRC’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as identified under the United Nations’ 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty, of course, does not give Beijing the right to veto activities outside its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters, but does give it the right to object to certain economic undertakings in its EEZ, such as drilling for oil and gas or fishing.

Beijing does not see it that way. While a sea treaty signatory, it claimed an exception upon entering into the treaty, claiming that territorial waters and the EEZ are sovereign.

The Chinese also harassed an Impeccable sister ship, Victorious, about the same time using similar tactics, while it was conducting operations in the Yellow Sea. There have now been at least five such incidents between U.S. and Chinese vessels off the PRC’s coast.

Red flags are also being raised about China’s expanding global interests and the role of the PLAN in it.

Global goals

In congressional testimony this year, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said Beijing’s international behavior is driven by, among other things, a “longstanding ambition to see China play a role of a great power in East Asia and globally.”

In other words, it is not just about Taiwan anymore.

Sure, deterring or preventing a Taiwanese declaration of independence or forcing unification by military means with its cross-Taiwan Strait island rival is still front and center of Chinese foreign and defense policy. But Chinese leaders are beginning to look well beyond Taiwan. China, long a land power, is becoming increasingly dependent on the use of the sea for its economic and political influence, making a strong navy a prerequisite for meeting national goals.

While China is still conducting traditional military operations and drills in the surrounding South and East China seas, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), it is paying increasing attention to disputed energy fields and activities in its EEZ.

This comes as no surprise as China, now the world’s third-largest economy after the U.S. and Japan, continues its laserlike focus on growing its economy, which includes access to the resources along its periphery. But that will not be sufficient, considering China is now heavily dependent on the seaborne export of finished goods and the import of natural resources for production that have allowed the PRC to chalk up 10 percent growth rates for a decade now.

For instance, China must also be able to patrol and defend sea lines of communications, such as transporting energy resources from Africa and the Middle East, which requires transits of the broad Indian Ocean and the narrow Malacca Strait, an important Southeast Asian maritime chokepoint. (Eighty-five percent of China’s imported oil comes through the Malacca Strait.)

It’s not surprising then that Blair, a former Pacific commander, told Congress: “China’s national security interests are broadening. This will likely lead China to attempt to develop at least a limited naval projection capability extending beyond the South China Sea.”

It has already started on some “soft” power projection. Reminiscent of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, Beijing sends ships around the world to show the flag and generate good will, including a 12,000-mile jaunt to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007. It also displays China’s new sense of confidence and power.

But China is also employing some hard power. Beijing deployed a small flotilla to the Gulf of Aden on an anti-piracy patrol in December, marking China’s first out-of-area deployment. Not surprisingly, to support China’s interests abroad, the PLAN is undergoing a significant military modernization based on a new naval strategy. The Pentagon’s annual congressional report on Chinese military power asserts that Beijing’s maritime strategy is evolving beyond “offshore active defense,” which calls for coastal operations out to the first island chain (i.e., Japan-Taiwan-Indonesia).

Far sea defense

The new strategy is “far sea defense,” which puts a premium on “multidimensional precision attacks beyond the first island chain and outside of China’s EEZ to defend PRC national interests,” adding a layer of strategic depth, according to the Pentagon.

Not every Chinese analyst is a fan of this more forward-leaning strategy, believing it will raise China’s profile in an unflattering way, causing major powers such as the U.S., Japan and India to hedge and balance against China. But regardless, many experts believe the PRC is developing a navy which can effect sea denial within the first island chain, while also conducting anti-access operations, holding opponents at risk as far out as the second island chain, i.e., as far east as Guam.

DIA director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples told Congress this winter: “China is developing a layered maritime capability with medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines, maritime strike aircraft and surface combatants armed with increasingly sophisticated anti-ship missiles.”

Of particular concern is the new conventionally armed anti-ship ballistic missiles based on the CSS-5 airframe, which has maneuverable re-entry vehicles and a range in excess of 800 miles. Put together with good C4ISR for geolocation and tracking, this new capability would provide the PLAN with a long-range anti-access, preventive or pre-emptive strike capability against surface ships, including high-value platforms such as aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy has never faced such a threat.

In addition, since the early 1990s, China has deployed nine new destroyer and frigate classes, improving its at-sea fighting capabilities. The SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missile, found aboard Sovremenny-class destroyers, adds punch.

The carrier question no longer seems to be in question. It is taken as a given that China will produce at least a limited number of aircraft carriers, probably equipped with Russian Su-33 fighters. A nuclear carrier might be operational by 2020.

Submarines are another concern. The Pentagon reports that the “acquisition and development of the Kilo, Song, Shang, and Yuan-class submarine illustrates the importance the PLA places on undersea warfare for sea-denial.” The Kilo, Song and Yuan are diesel attack boats, while the Shang is China’s first nuclear attack submarine. They are armed with a range of weapons, including wake-homing torpedoes, mines and anti-ship cruise missiles, including the Russian-made SS-N-27 Sizzler.

By 2010, the Jin-class ballistic missile submarine will be carrying the intercontinental-range JL-2 missiles, enhancing the mobility, survivability and deterrence of China’s nuclear forces, known as the Second Artillery. The Jins are stationed at the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island, providing the likely reason the Chinese are unhappy about American ships conducting operations nearby.

While China is certainly modernizing its fleet, some analysts contend that it is not expanding it. Despite this, not all of China’s neighbors are sanguine about it, including the U.S. In May, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen caused a bit of a firestorm in China, when he said the Chinese “are developing capabilities that are very maritime focused, maritime and air focused, and in many ways, very much focused on us. … They seem very focused on the United States Navy and our bases that are in that part of the world.”

The U.S. has shifted as many as 50 attack subs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and forward-deployed naval assets from the West Coast and Hawaii to Guam to overcome the tyranny of distance Pacific commanders face.

But it is not just the U.S. Vietnam penned a $2 billion deal for six Russian Kilo-class diesel submarines. Hanoi is annoyed about territorial disputes with Beijing as well as the new Sanya naval base off its north coast. Australia’s most recent defense white paper expressed concern about “China’s military modernization,” and recommended boosting its sub fleet to 12. Submarine expansions are expected in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, too. India, a major naval power in its own right, is concerned about China’s naval buildup, especially the possibility of Beijing developing port facilities in places such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. In Delhi’s view, it is not called the Indian Ocean by accident.

Critical questions

With nearly 60 diesel and nuclear attack boats and more than 75 major surface ships, the PLAN is already the second largest navy in the Pacific, after the U.S. While quality was an issue in the past, that situation is rapidly changing. The PLAN still has weaknesses, including the inability to sustain operations distant from shore and little, if any, combat experience, but the PLAN is a priority for Beijing, meaning it will almost assuredly get the needed resources.

The increased roles and missions — and improved capabilities — of the PLAN have implications for the U.S. Navy in terms of its budgets, modernization, presence and influence in the Western Pacific as well as Taiwan planning contingencies.

Considering the PLAN’s rise, the questions of anti-submarine warfare, homeporting, aircraft carriers numbers, missile defense, research and development, and even space take on greater importance than at any time since the Cold War.

While the Pacific has long been considered an American lake, that can no longer be taken for granted. China is clearly on a trajectory to have significant say — and sway — in maritime matters in the Western Pacific and, very likely, beyond.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.