When one considers all the aspects of maritime power—navy, coast guard, militia, merchant marine, port infrastructure, shipbuilding, fishing—it is difficult to escape the conclusion that China already is a maritime power, at least in sheer capacity. No other country in the world can match China’s maritime capabilities across the board.
So what is the problem?
Why do China’s leaders characterize becoming a maritime power as a future goal, as opposed to asserting that China is a maritime power? Chinese experts think that China has to improve in several areas:
The China Coast Guard needs to complete the integration of the four separate maritime law enforcement entities into a functionally coherent and professional Chinese coast guard.
Increased demand for more protein in the Chinese diet means that the fishing industry—in particular, the distant-water fishing (DWF) component—must expand and play a growing role in assuring China’s “food security.”
Chinese projections suggest that by 2030 China will surpass Greece and Japan to have the world’s largest merchant fleet by DWT and that its “international shipping capacity” will double, to account for 15 percent of the world’s shipping volume. China’s goal is that 85 percent of crude oil should be carried by Chinese-controlled ships. China will become the largest tanker owner by owner nationality around 2017-18.
China’s shipbuilding sector is facing a serious period of contraction; thus, the biggest shortcoming is trying to preserve as much capacity as possible: among other things, thousands of jobs are at stake. Chinese builders are also working to ensure the future health of the industry by building economically competitive complex ships and thereby moving up the value chain.
China’s most serious impediment to becoming a maritime power is its navy. It wants its navy to be able to deal with the threat of containment, defend its sea lanes, and look after global interests and Chinese citizens abroad. Chinese assessments quite logically conclude that until its navy can accomplish these missions China will not be considered a maritime power.
When will China become the leading maritime power?
From the perspective of spring 2016, none of these shortcomings appear insurmountable. Past performance suggests that China is likely to achieve all of its maritime power objectives, except perhaps one, sometime between 2020 and 2030.
Shortcomings in the coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing industry are likely to be rectified by around 2025. Chinese experts estimate that the merchant marine objectives will be accomplished by around 2030. China seems determined to move up the value/ship complexity scale in shipbuilding. This is will depend on the success of China’s attempts to create mega-yards to capitalize on economy of scale.
China is forecast to have a larger navy than the United States in five years or so if one simply counts numbers of principal combatants, underway replenishment ships and submarines—virtually all of which will be available in East Asia, facing only a portion of the USN in these waters on a day-to-day basis. China will have a growing quantitative advantage in the Western Pacific while gradually closing the qualitative gap. China also depends on its land based air and missile forces to contribute to the defense of its home waters.
Since it is up to China’s leaders to judge when its navy is strong enough for China to be a maritime power, it is difficult to forecast a date. Their criteria for deciding when its navy meets their standards for being a maritime power are likely to revolve around several publicly stated objectives:
The first objective is to control waters where China’s “maritime rights and interests” are involved. This likely means the ability to achieve “sea and air control” over the maritime approaches to China—i.e., to protect mainland China when U.S. aircraft or cruise missile shooters are close enough to attack it, probably somewhere around the second island chain. “Near-waters defense,” known as A2/AD in the United States, is intended to defeat such an attack. A very important uncertainty is when, if ever, China’s leaders will come to believe that its navy can provide such a defense, because the United States is actively working to ensure that it cannot.
The second objective is being able to enforce its maritime rights and interests. If one considers this to be primarily a peacetime problem set, the combination of China’s coast guard and maritime militia are already capable of, and increasingly practiced in, enforcing Chinese rules and regulations in its territorial seas and claimed EEZ (or within the so called nine-dash line) in the South China Sea.
The third objective revolves around the ability to deter or defeat attempts at maritime containment. It is not absolutely clear what China means by “maritime containment.”
- If “maritime containment” is intended to mean a blockade, a war-time activity, the combination of the capabilities required to “control “ its maritime approaches, addressed above, plus the capabilities associated with the “open seas protection” mission addressed in chapter 3, pertain.
- But if deterring maritime containment implies a peacetime activity involving the combination of Chinese conventional and nuclear capabilities and the perception that China’s leaders have the will to act, this deterrent is already in place—and will be enhanced by its newly operational SSBN force.
- Deterring maritime containment may also address the broader political-military objective of making certain that the United States and other leading maritime powers of Asia do not establish a formal defense treaty relationship where all parties are pledged to come to the aid of one another. (This seems highly unlikely because of China’s economic power, geographic propinquity, and strategic nuclear arsenal, and because it has the largest navy in Asia.)
Implications and policy options for the United States
Whether it is the navy, the merchant marine, or China’s distant-water fishing fleet, the Chinese flag is going to be ubiquitous on the high seas around the world. There may be far more opportunities for USN-PLAN cooperation because the PLAN ships are far removed from Chinese home waters, where sovereignty and maritime claim disputes create a different maritime ambiance.
Collectively, a number of factors—the goals for more Chinese-controlled tankers and other merchant ships, the new focus on “open seas protection” naval capabilities, the bases in the Spratlys, Djibouti, and probably Gwadar, Pakistan, and the ambitious infrastructure plans associated with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—suggest that China is doing its best to immunize itself against attempts to interrupt its seaborne trade by either peacetime sanctions or wartime blockades.
One implication for Washington of China’s growing “open seas protection” capable ships is that U.S. authorities can no longer assume unencumbered freedom to posture U.S. naval forces off Middle East and East African hotspots if Chinese interests are involved and differ from Washington’s. Both governments could elect to dispatch naval forces to the waters offshore of the country in question.
Once the reality of a large Chinese navy that routinely operates worldwide sinks into world consciousness, the image of a PLAN “global” navy will over time attenuate perceptions of American power, especially in maritime regions where only the USN or its friends have operated freely since the end of the Cold War.
More significantly, the image of a modern global navy combined with China’s leading position in all other aspects of maritime power will make it easy for Beijing to eventually claim it has become the “world’s leading maritime power,” and argue its views regarding the rules, regulations, and laws that govern the maritime domain must be accommodated.
Becoming a maritime power falls into the category of China doing what China thinks it should do, and there is little that Washington could (or should) do to deflect China from its goal. The maritime power objective is inextricably linked to Chinese sovereignty concerns, real and perceived; its maritime rights and interests broadly and elastically defined; its economic development, jobs, and improved technical expertise; the centrality of fish to its food security goals; and its perception of the attributes that a global power should possess. Furthermore, it is important because the president and general secretary of the CCP has said so.
There is one aspect of Chinese maritime power that U.S. government officials should press their Chinese counterparts to address: just how large will the PLA Navy become? The lack of Chinese transparency on this fundamental fact is understandable only if Beijing worries that the number is large enough to be frightening.
Washington does have considerable leverage on the navy portion of China’s goal because of the direct relationship between the maritime power objective and its impact on America’s ability to access the Western Pacific if alliance partners or Taiwan face an attack by China. U.S. security policy should continue to focus on and resource appropriately the capabilities necessary to achieve access, or what is now known as Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC).
The only thing likely to cause China to reconsider its objective of becoming the leading maritime power is an economic dislocation serious enough to raise questions associated with “how much is enough?” This could cause a major reprioritization of resources away from several maritime endeavors such as the navy, merchant marine, and shipbuilding.