How America Turned a Blind Eye to China's Growing Naval Power

The Singapore Navy frigate RSS Supreme, guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Singapore Navy corvette RSS Vigour in the South China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Navy

China doesn’t need to command sea or sky, either partially or wholly, to prevail in a trial of arms.

Admirals say the darnedest things. Over at the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, retired U.S. Pacific Command Intelligence Chief Capt. Jim Fanell takes PACOM kahunas, past and present, to task for disparaging China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Respect for prospective foes, proclaims Captain Fanell, constitutes the most prudent attitude.

Such counsel is evergreen.

Military folk must beware of hubris, the worst of all strategic habits. As ancient Greeks warned, hubris begets nemesis, meaning divine retribution. It’s insidious—especially for a force like the U.S. Navy. After all, it’s been twenty-six years since the Cold War. Few sailors or naval aviators now in uniform have known anything except American maritime supremacy. Such a historical interlude can give rise to triumphalism that taints assessments of rising challengers.

Last month, for instance, erstwhile PACOM commander Adm. Dennis Blair told a naval conference that China’s military has failed to amass “maritime and air superiority” and thus cannot degrade American deterrence or treaty commitments in the Far East. Around the same time, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, current PACOM supremo, Adm. Harry Harris, likened comparing PLAN and U.S. Navy submarines to “comparing a Model T with a Corvette.”

The impression conveyed in both instances: nothing to worry about here, move along.

Fanell takes exception to these statements on two grounds. First, that disparaging the PLAN flouts the reality of mounting Chinese martial prowess and material capability. And second, that insinuating the PLAN isn’t battleworthy betrays a political tin ear. Pooh-poohing the challenge damps congressional and popular support for the larger U.S. Navy that the Trump administration and Navy leaders have been pushing. Thus, the admirals convey a false impression of China’s navy and then compound that error by sapping political support for rebuilding the U.S. Navy.

This amounts to self-defeating conduct on naval potentates’ part. After all, if China’s navy remains little more than a nuisance, as not just admirals but learned commentators sometimes say, why should lawmakers fund a pricey naval buildup to counter it?

Let’s take Fanell’s points in turn, starting with Admiral Blair. By “maritime superiority,” Blair presumably means “sea control,” the usual term. My colleague, professor Milan Vego, defines sea control as “one’s ability to use a given part of the ocean/sea and the associated air (space) for military and nonmilitary purposes and to deny the same to the enemy in a time of open hostilities.”

U.S. Air Force doctrine, meanwhile, depicts “air superiority” as “that degree of control of the air by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.” It may be “localized in space and time,” or “broad and enduring.”

The common denominator is physical space. Sea control and air superiority connote imposing enough control of physical space to fulfill one’s purposes while preventing a foe from fulfilling its purposes.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Blair has it right and China’s military can’t wrest sea or air superiority from the U.S. military and its partners—even in China’s own environs. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that an inferior PLAN cannot degrade American deterrence or security guarantees?

Well, no. By deploying even lesser forces with skill and dexterity, PLA commanders can sow doubt among U.S. allies fearful of being abandoned to the wrath of Asia’s would-be hegemon.

Henry Kissinger’s workmanlike formula for deterrence constitutes a serviceable formula for reassurance as well. Deterrence, writes Kissinger, is a product of three variables: “power, the will to use it, and the assessment of these by the potential aggressor.” All three are critical. And because “deterrence is a product of those factors and not a sum,” deterrence drops to zero if any one variable does.

Deterrence, then, is about fielding formidable capabilities and mustering the moxie to use them. Capability and willpower represent the two basic components of strength for any combatant. But deterrence comes down to making the antagonist a believer in one’s capability and resolve. The most musclebound, most stalwart competitor cannot deter an unbeliever.