July 8, 2009
By Peter Brookes
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
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
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
Red flags are also being raised about China's expanding global
interests and the role of the PLAN in it.
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
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.,
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
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.
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
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 senior fellow for
National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage
First appeared in Armed Forces Journal
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.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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