Rival for US maritime power looming fast on the horizon
Global Times | April 22, 2012 20:10
By James Holmes
China can build a strong navy, and it is. Some Western commentators maintain that a continental power like China can never compete with a world-straddling naval power like the United States. A century ago Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of our Naval War College, proclaimed that no nation could rank as a great land power and a great sea power at the same time, or at least not for long.
The exigencies of land defense siphon too many resources from maritime pursuits. If Mahan had it right, Chinese marine ambitions will ultimately come to grief. Skeptical pundits today commonly invoke the Chinese battle fleets' long absence from the high seas, or the Qing Dynasty's (1644-1911) inability to construct a strong navy during its waning days, or Mao Zedong's famous indifference to naval endeavors. Geographic and cultural impediments, they say, are too much to overcome.
As Admiral John Cunningham aptly observed, "it might take the navy three years to build a new fleet" but "300 years to build a new tradition." The hurdles in front of Chinese sea power are high. But few outcomes are preordained given human ingenuity and perseverance.
Indeed, Mahan's homeland rebuts his thesis. The US is a great land power. Because its frontiers face no serious threat, the republic can spare the resources for sea power, as it started doing in the 1880s, when shipwrights laid the keels for the US Navy's first modern men-of-war. Tranquil borders afford Beijing the same luxury. If China stays on good terms with its neighbors, easing the burden of land defense, it may replicate America's feat by the fin de siècle.
Now, how will China employ its navy?
Some Chinese sea-power proponents chafe at Beijing's apparent reluctance to use the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) to settle matters in the South and East China seas.
I would describe this as prudent diplomacy. Sea power encompasses far more than navies. For Mahan, sea power was founded on international commerce, merchant and naval fleets, and overseas bases where ships could pause for supplies and repairs. Land-based weaponry plays its part in this high-tech age. Even ships deployed by non-military agencies like China Maritime Surveillance represent useful tools in the toolkit.
Think about last week's standoff at Scarborough Shoal, west of Luzon. The Philippine Navy is little more than a coast guard. Indeed, its flagship is a surplus US Coast Guard cutter of 1960s vintage. Beijing enjoys the luxury of dispatching unarmed or lightly armed vessels to uphold its maritime territorial claims vis-à-vis such a force. Doing so spares China from looking like a bully. And China's leadership always has the option of escalating by deploying PLA Navy vessels that can vastly outgun their Philippine counterparts, making the outcome of any armed clash a foregone conclusion. Manila understands that PLA Navy firepower stands behind Chinese cutters cruising contested waters, and the Philippine officials are reluctant to push too hard. That knowledge translates into a kind of virtual coercion and deterrence for China.
Using the maritime enforcement agencies, or "five dragons," this way reflects a broad, sophisticated understanding of the political uses of ships. I would handle matters similarly if I were overseeing Chinese maritime operations.
Lastly, how can China ease fellow seagoing nations' qualms toward its burgeoning nautical might? The only way is to establish a track record for living by its rhetoric. Foreign observers measure words against deeds.
Take it from me: Americans still hear from our Latin American friends about the "banana wars" of the early 20th century! Telling others that China seeks only "peaceful development," harbors only goodwill and the like only goes so far.
If China is a benign seafaring nation, it must prove it through its actions at sea. China is amassing formidable sea power. How skillfully it wields that power remains to be seen.
The author is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. firstname.lastname@example.org