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China as a Global Naval Power

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Writer: Vassilios Damiras Ph.D. (ABD)

Since 1990s, the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has increasingly transformed from a large fleet of low-capability, single-mission naval platforms, to a much leaner force equipped with a more modern, multi-mission platforms. Compare to the fleet a decade ago, a variety of PLA Navy combatants and vessels are equipped with highly advanced airdefence systems and very sophisticated Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles-ASCMS, with ranges in excess to 297 miles. These brand new highlysophisticated systems and modernised military platforms give a great capacity to urge an anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and also allow them to execute complex military operations far beyond the range of land-based air defences.

The US government has three alternatives to face China’s new naval projection. The first strategic alternative for the Obama administration is to continue its current security approach to the region in essence to sustain a strong military presence. The second strategic alternative promoted by neo-isolationists in both political parties would be to significantly reduce American commitment and to introduce an extremely narrower definition on America’s geopolitical role in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a strategy will have the American government to rely on its allies to defend stability and America’s national interests in the region. The third strategic alternative would be to establish a forward-leaning strategy that would protect the US forces and US commitment in the region

China throughout history has been perceived as a great hegemonic regional power. Lately, Chinese politico-military leadership has embarked upon building and sustaining a strong naval power and presence in the Asia-Pacific proper and across the globe. Chinese naval forces have deployed operationally far beyond its close maritime security periphery to protect Chinese and other merchant vessels from pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Thus, the current Chinese policy is determined to create and establish a prosperous nation via a strong and highly sophisticated military initiative. This new policy contains four vital modernisations such as defence, agriculture, industry and science and technology.

Chinese leadership has declared in clear terms that the security of Chinese seaborne imports and exports are extremely crucial to the Chinese nation’s prosperity and socio-economic survival in a competitive global market. Specifically, security of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden is extremely important to major Chinese geoeconomic interests. China imports sixteen per cent of its overall energy (including one-third of its oil supplies), as well as a variety of strategic resources significant to operate its manufacturing industry from the African continent. The various Somali pirate attacks on numerous Chinese ships consolidated Chinese concerns that its maritime interests face serious challenges. On December 28, 2008, China deployed a flotilla from the South Sea Fleet to protect its geostrategic and geoeconomic interests in the region.

Moreover, China is the European Union’s (EU’s) second largest commercial and trading partner, the EU is China’s largest and much of the commercial goods pass daily the Red Sea and through the Indian Ocean via large container ships. Forty per cent are Chinese vessels that utilise the various navigation lines of the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, some of China’s 2,000 distant water fishing ships use the waters of the Horn of Africa practically on a daily basis.

Chinese naval leadership, in order to protect the various and complex Chinese naval interests, has classified its naval operations into near seas, middle seas and far seas / oceans. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has realised that the new naval policy will create the image of a strong China ready to protect its maritime interests. Also, CommunistParty officials argue constantly that Chinese Navy needs to obtain aircraft carriers for the purpose to carry the new defence policy. In 2000, China bought the former Soviet carrier Kiev from Ukraine. However, it became a tourist attraction at the Tianjin Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park. In 2004, China obtained an unlicensed copy of Su-33 carrier aircraft from Ukraine. On August 10, 2011, Beijing presented the first aircraft carrier. Thus, the Chinese Navy has the capability to reach long-range targets.

The rapid warming of the diplomatic relations between India and the United States over the past decade is proving to be a serious and significant, yet very challenging, new relationship

Chinese military leadership supports this new revolutionary naval projection of power, because it perceives that China is facing long-term, complex and diverse security challenges and serious menaces. Obviously, issues of current Chinese security concerns and evolving security challenges in the region, traditional security threats and non-traditional security challenges regarding Asia-Pacific region and domestic security issues regarding civil and political unrest and the Muslim minority and global security menaces and challenges are extensively interactive and interwoven. On specific terms, Beijing closely monitors the Taiwanese independence movement, the East Turkistan independent movement and the Tibetan independence movement. Chinese decision-makers fear that the United States, Russia, or India can support these sectarian movements in order to undermine China’s national interests in the region.

A forward-leaning or forward-looking US strategy for the Asian continent would have two major pillars: American willingness to engage in long-term diplomatic competition with China in peacetime and to persuade Chinese leaders that it cannot start and win a quick regional war

The new and very powerful naval posture from China has created a new era in regional relations regarding the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and India. The Bush and Obama administrations strengthened defence ties in the area. Sino-American diplomatic relations entered a new era of ambiguity. China has ongoing disputes with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia over maritime territorial interest in the East and South China Sea. These various and sustaining conflicts create the conditions for permanent instability in the region. Taiwan is the most sensitive issue. The Chinese Communist leaders want to incorporate the island of Taiwan into China. Taiwanese political leadership refuses such an approach. Thus, the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) demands the US government supply both military material and services of a defensive posture to Taiwanese government and sustains American military capability to assist the Taiwanese military to thwart a Chinese invasion.

The new and very powerful naval posture from China has created a new era in regional relations regarding the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and India

The US government has three alternatives to face China’s new naval projection. The first strategic alternative for the Obama administration is to continue its current security approach to the region in essence to sustain a strong military presence. The second strategic alternative promoted by neo-isolationists in both political parties would be to significantly reduce American commitment and to introduce an extremely narrower definition on America’s geopolitical role in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a strategy will have the American government to rely on its allies to defend stability and the American national interests in the region. The third strategic alternative would be to establish a forward-leaning strategy that would protect the US forces and US commitment in the region.

A forward-leaning or forward-looking US strategy for the Asian continent would have two major pillars: American willingness to engage in long-term diplomatic competition with China in peacetime and to persuade Chinese leaders that it cannot start and win a quick regional war. In order to achieve that, the Obama administration needs to adopt three major geostrategic approaches. First, US military structure in the Asia-Pacific region should reduce its overdependence on the support of aircraft carriers and design and develop networks of modern and capable surface ships. Thus, the US Defence Department (DOD) supports the development of the new highly sophisticated destroyer. In addition, the US administration needs to sustain a great amount of highly modernised and sophisticated submarines. The Bush administration had started to build the new generation of submarines and President Barack Obama continues the same naval programme. Second, the US government needs to sustain a strong military presence in the Western Pacific to protect its allies and to deter a potential Chinese aggression. Third, the American administration needs to adopt and execute considerable investments to counter China’s new deployment of highly precision-guided conventional missiles, such as its anti-ship ballistic missiles. The Obama administration indicates that it wants to stop China’s hegemonic presence in the region. Nonetheless, President Obama has sent mixed signals to China and their American allies and friends in the region about how determined the United States really is to stop Chinese expansion.

On March 31, 2011, China’s Defence White Paper for 2010 clearly indicated four strategic goals as:

  • safeguard national sovereignty, security and interests of national development;
  • maintaining social harmony and stability;
  • accelerating the modernisation of national defence and the armed forces; and
  • maintaining world peace and stability.

Nonetheless, the United States and the regional countries do not trust that China is for global peace and world stability. Especially India is extremely suspicious. The Indian government fears that in the near future it will face Chinese aggression again. The two countries have border disputes since 1962. These regional disputes allowed China to seize territory from India. Indian leadership has serious concerns regarding Chinese naval emergence in the region at large and also particularly in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, Beijing supports Pakistan against India. In 2006, China and India signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of Defence.” Nonetheless, both countries still distrust each other. Hence, in the twentyfirst century India’s defence establishment is undergoing a serious and dramatic transformation as it modernises its defence capabilities. India systematically seeks a “strategic partnership” with the United States of America. The diplomatic courtship started under President BillClinton continued under President George W Bush and was furthered under President Obama with his latest trip to India.

The rapid warming of the diplomatic relations between India and the United States over the past decade is proving to be a serious and significant, yet very challenging, new relationship. The new opportunity for tens of billions of US dollars in defence related sales will open up new business avenues for both countries and establish strong bilateral relations. Both nation states can collaborate to stop a Chinese aggression in the region.

It is evident that the Chinese Communist leadership wants to build a prosperous nation state with a strong and modernised military. With the advent of the new century the globe is facing serious and tremendous alterations, adjustments and challenges. Peace, prosperity and development still dominate the political, diplomatic and economic arenas. Nonetheless, there are various factors of political and economic uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region. The dramatic geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic vacillations in the world market influence extensively on regional economic development and evolution. Ethnic, political and religious discords and various conflicting demands and claims over territorial and maritime rights dominate the regional stability in the region. China wants to capitalise on these issues and enhance its hegemonic influence in the region and beyond Asia-Pacific proper.


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