This article will try to understand why China has turned to the sea, its naval growth, and if its maritime endeavors are defensive or offensive in nature. These findings will, in turn, determine if India should be concerned by China’s activities, especially in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This examination begins by studying China’s economic need for the sea, its naval growth and, finally, its maritime objectives. It will examine China’s economic growth and determine if its primary desire is to protect its economy by developing its naval prowess or if that development is, simultaneously, the outcome of a desire for regional hegemony.
Australian researcher Lindsay Hughes, who is now a contributing author for Defencyclopedia, analyses the role and growth of Indian and Chinese navies. This is 3-part series will document the historical, geographical, economic and military reasons responsible for the military buildup and this article is the third one in the series. If you missed the fist & second parts
The Maritime Emphasis of China’s Strategy
China’s economic growth over the last three decades has been rapid, making it the world’s second largest economy. China has made manufacture and export a fundamental element of its growth strategy. China has become the world’s largest ship-builder, surpassing Japan and South Korea. The Cosco Shipyard Group, China’s largest ship-builder, has increased manufacturing capacity in all its shipyards. In Dalian capacity rose by 73 per cent by 2005, including the creation of the world’s largest dry dock, which caters to very large crude carriers (VLCC). Also in 2005, citing national security concerns due to a shortage of ships, China’s Department of Transport stated the country needed a fleet of VLCCs capable of transporting more than fifty per cent of its energy products in Chinese hulls, leading to the observation that China’s VLCC fleet will more than double by the middle of this decade.
The PLAN comprises 876 vessels including 78 principal surface combat ships and 71 submarines.
China’s ship-building efforts also include naval hulls. Its naval modernization includes the building and creation of platforms, weapons systems, infrastructure and the software to manage these assets. According to The Military Balance 2012, the PLAN comprises 876 vessels including 78 principal surface combat ships and 71 submarines. Arguably the most impressive element of China’s naval modernization has been the growth of its submarine fleet. Since the mid-1990s, it has acquired twelve Kilo-class attack submarines from Russia in addition to building its own Song and Yuan classes. Reportedly China inducted twenty-three indigenously built conventional submarines between 1995 and 2007.
Submarines, however, are not suitable instruments of power projection, so China has also constructed surface strike ships with extended ranges. Over the last decade it has bought or built several destroyers and frigates. These include four Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers, five classes of indigenous destroyers and four classes of frigates. It has also designed and built large amphibious (landing) ships, supply ships to service its long-distance destroyers, and developed naval command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.
A Possible Rationale for China’s Naval Emphasis
China’s stated first priority is to “re-integrate” Taiwan, explaining its need for amphibious ships. It is also creating blue-water capacity beyond the “first island chain” – the Kuril Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. The “second island chain” runs roughly north to south from the Kuril Islands, through Japan, the Bonin, Mariana, and Carolina Islands, and Indonesia. These two lines extend approximately 1,800 nautical miles from China’s east coast. Breaking free of the USA’s domination of the two lines is a key goal of its maritime strategy, explaining why it conducted naval exercises through the first island chain in April 2010.
This strategy is a direct emulation of the USSR’s strategy of equally spaced, roughly parallel sea lines of defence (“thresholds”) situated at varying distances from its coasts, each defended by weapons systems to deny the USA sea access and dominance. The first threshold consisted of surveillance ships, aircraft and, satellites, the second land-based, long-range bombers, and the third submarines. Having acquired the submarines, the rationale for China’s emphasis on developing electronic surveillance systems and an indigenous global positioning system is now apparent.
Chinese Admiral Liu proposed a “three island chain” approach in 1988, according to which China would establish a permanent blue water presence in the first “island chain”, along a Japan-Taiwan-Philippines axis including the South China Sea by 2010. By 2025 it would establish a similar presence in the second “island chain”, stretching from the Aleutians through the Mariana Islands, to the east coast of Papua New Guinea, and including the Strait of Malacca. By 2050, its reach would extend to the third “island chain”, starting in the Aleutians and ending in Antarctica, including waters off New Zealand and Australia.
China’s economic growth demands a turn to the sea, it is threatened by the USA’s naval dominance in the South and East China Seas. China’s “passage in and out of the open seas is obstructed by two island chains. China’s maritime geostrategic posture is in a semi-closed condition”, “From a geostrategic perspective, China’s heartland faces the sea, the benefits of economic development are increasingly dependent on the sea, and security comes from the sea”. The solution is to develop naval power. A blue-water navy would need to “cast the field of vision of its strategic defence to the open ocean and to develop attack capabilities for battle operations along exterior lines”. This argument could well have been taken from US Navy Admiral Mahan’s writings.
Whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history
Similarly, Professor Ni Lexiong of the Research Institute of War and Culture reminds China of its humiliation by Japan in 1894 – 1895 when the Japanese fleet crushed its navy. Asserting that “the key to winning that war was to gain command of the sea”, he writes that Mahan, … believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.
The foregoing examples make the point that China’s naval strategists are becoming increasingly assertive in their outlook. If is therefore probable that China will seek to maintain the security of its commercial SLOCs.
China must guarantee sea-going communications along its coast; these could be threatened by, say, US forces situated in Okinawa which could easily be positioned at the junction of the East China and South China Seas. Since China will not willingly depend on a security umbrella provided by another state, it must securitise the SLOCs which carry its trade and commerce, which is best done by claiming the South China Sea as its own body of water. It claimed virtually the entire sea in 1992, putting this position into domestic law.
China has made clear its willingness to use force to back up its maritime claims. In 1976 its naval forces took the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, and in 1988 the PLAN fought a Vietnamese flotilla to occupy part of the Spratly Islands and install anti-ship missiles on Woody Island. In 1995, after the USA withdrew from the Philippines, China seized Mischief Reef from within the Philippines’s two hundred nautical mile exclusive economic zone and fortified it in 1998.
In this, China has once again conformed to Mahanian theory: establishing forward bases, extending its outward defence perimeter, strengthening its SLOCs and seeking control over the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, itself the conduit for a full sixth of world trade and the SLOC for vital energy imports for China, Japan and other East Asian countries. Thus, while some analysts might emphasise the potential under-sea hydro-carbon deposits of the East and South China Seas, these seas are strategically important to China because of their geography too. China views them as one continuous ocean. In order to command it, China’s navy must be able to operate freely within it. Thus China claims them and their resources.
General Douglas MacArthur stated that Formosa (Taiwan) was “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, able to project American power along China’s coast in a containment strategy.
This need to defend its international shipping routes requires China to focus on the regional environment, in the first instance, since its SLOCs pass relatively close to Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Strait of Malacca. To China, Taiwan represents the most tangible and immediate impediment to the securitization of its SLOCs and any maritime ambitions it may have in the region and further afield. Its geographic position allows it to thwart virtually all power projection from the mainland. As the map above demonstrates, the island chain of which Taiwan is a major part stretches from Japan to the Philippine archipelago, virtually encompassing the Chinese mainland which arcs into the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan lies off-shore in the center of the Chinese coastline; it has, therefore, the potential to block all of China’s access to the sea. In naval terms, Taiwan can potentially block the Chinese north and south fleets from amassing. It is also the most effective barrier to Chinese naval operations beyond the first island chain. China learned the value of Taiwan in the Korean War of 1950 – 1953.
After US President Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, General Douglas MacArthur stated that Formosa (Taiwan) was “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, able to project American power along China’s coast in a containment strategy. The island’s position along with its ties to the USA have caused resentment in Beijing since the CCP cannot achieve its goal of national unification and also poses a major security threat to China’s development.
The Chinese analyst Lin Zhibo sums the situation up: “Militarily, Taiwan is a potential which the USA could use in the western Pacific. The use of Taiwan could enable effective control of sea lines of communication between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia and the Middle East. … Thus the USA sees Taiwan as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, giving it a maximum degree of control over China’s East and South Sea fleets. Lin probably had the implied threat posed by two US carrier groups deliberately positioned in the vicinity during the Taiwan Crisis of 1996 in mind when he wrote that.
To overcome this handicap, China must possess a navy capable of circling the island at will. This could explain its massive ship-building program. On the other hand, “unifying” Taiwan with the mainland will be more to Beijing’s liking since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have taken another step towards its stated goal of “unifying” China. It could be argued that nationalism presses the CCP to integrate Taiwan with the mainland.
It is reasonable to assume that Beijing will turn its attention to the Indian Ocean once it has secured the East China, Yellow and South China Seas to its satisfaction. That is of little surprise. Since it is energy products which fuel China’s economy, and since China is a net importer of energy, it must necessarily secure its energy-focussed SLOCs. The question, however, must be asked: are China’s efforts in the Indian Ocean an attempt to securitise its energy SLOCs or aimed towards something else? This question will be answered by examining China’s activities in the region.
There are a number of compelling reasons that drive China to modernise its navy. Its energy imports play too important a part in its economic development to risk its safety. China imports the bulk of its oil from the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, forcing it to look carefully at its energy SLOCs, especially as they converge at the Strait of Malacca, through which over 75 per cent passes.
It is no exaggeration to say that whoever controls the Strait of Malacca will also have a stranglehold on the energy route of China. Excessive reliance on this strait has brought an important potential threat to China’s energy security.
A 2005 report by US defence contractor Booz, Allen and Hamilton alleged China had a long-term geo-strategy to construct military bases and facilities in areas proximate to its trade and energy SLOCs. Called its “String of Pearls”, the document alleged China was creating bases in the South China Sea, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Africa, the Suez Canal, Venezuela and the Panama Canal – all sources of China’s energy imports or close to its trade and energy SLOCs. In the IOR they stretch from Hainan Island in China’s south to the Horn of Africa and include Woody Island in the South China Sea, Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Harao in the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan, and points in Kenya and Sudan. The strategy included a proposal to create a canal through Thailand’s Kra Isthmus so as to bypass the Malacca Strait. One report indicates China has concluded a secret treaty to construct a submarine base in the Maldives. This however may never be realized due to India’s rapidly growing relationship with the Maldives and the recent deal to place Indian surveillance radars on the islands.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lindsay Hughes is a Senior Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a think-tank established by the former Governor General of Australia, Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery. He specializes in the security and politics of the Indo-Pacific region, with an emphasis on the Sub-continent and China.
Edited by N.R.P
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