Although the United States remains the world’s only truly global naval power, it faces new challenges that have eroded its once dominant ability to control the near seas around its two closest major power competitors, China and Russia. At a recent event at the Center for the National Interest, leading experts on the Chinese and Russian navies warned that a new era of great power global naval competition has begun in which Washington can no longer take for granted its ability to access, let alone dominate, the littorals surrounding China and Russia. Although China and Russia are continental land powers, each has embarked on new quests to counter American seaborne threats through variations of an “active defense” doctrine.
Toshi Yoshihara, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and a leading authority on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), discussed how naval modernization supports China’s long-term strategic objectives, and explained Chinese strategic and tactical thinking regarding the near seas where its core national interests are focused. Sea power, explained Yoshihara, is a key element of President Xi Jinping’s overarching vision of the “China Dream,” a drive for national rejuvenation that seeks to return China to the front ranks of great powers, in all aspects of national power by midcentury. The primary external element of Xi’s vision is facilitating China’s “re-emergence as the epicenter of East Asian international politics,” which necessitates “a substantial reduction of American power and influence in Asia.”
Naval power is key to achieving the interlinked goals of national rejuvenation and a Sino-centric Asian regional order for several reasons. First, it could potentially help push the United States out of East Asia. Second, a strong navy is necessary to achieve China’s national reunification by bringing Taiwan back under Beijing’s control, without which the realization of Xi’s vision of a strong, prosperous and globally influential China will remain incomplete. Finally, sea power can protect China’s increasingly global trading interests, including sea transportation routes and the transcontinental infrastructure development projects that comprise Xi’s signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s naval strategy in its near seas centers on the concept of “active defense.” According to Yoshihara, “active defense is the use of offensive operations and tactics to protect China’s strategically defensive goals” in the event deterrence fails. The concept has a very concrete though unstated opponent in mind: “a powerful adversary with expeditionary forces armed with long-range precision strike weaponry that can threaten targets deep inside the Chinese homeland,” which Yoshihara noted could only be the United States.
For the PLA, a major operational challenge is the host of long-range firepower that the U.S. military can use to target the Chinese homeland. As a result, said Yoshihara, the goal of active defense is to “defend as far forward from the Chinese homeland as possible….to create a buffer zone that separates U.S. forces from China’s most important strategic, political and economic” centers along its east coast. The emergence of the eastern coastal provinces such as Guangdong and Jiangsu as China’s economic engines has necessitated a much more robust defense of China’s seaboard in place of the previous Mao-era doctrine of “strategic depth,” which called for the PLA to retreat deep in to China’s agrarian heartland and wage guerilla warfare.
In planning for “active defense,” China employs all elements of naval power, the key component of which is the use of long-range over the horizon firepower, with missiles playing a prominent role. This in some ways replicates the long-range precision strike [ability] of U.S. forces” noted Yoshihara. Chinese strategists envision future naval combat as “extremely intense, extremely lethal, and very quick,” involving the launch of “hundreds of missiles by both sides within about ten minutes” that could destroy an entire fleet in an afternoon. Yoshihara cautioned that the combined precision and lethality of the weapons involved in such a scenario creates an incentive for both sides to strike first. It also testifies to the fundamental transformation of Chinese naval power over the last ten to fifteen years. “China not only has the ambitions but increasingly the means to achieve those ambitions,” he concluded.
Dmitry Gorenburg, a leading expert on the Russian Navy at the Center for Naval Analyses, described how Russia’s navy poses different challenges for the United States. As with the PLAN, the Russian Navy is focusing on the perceived U.S. threat, but it is employing a different strategy that relies on submarine-based nuclear deterrence, coastal defense, and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). Its reliance on SSBNs has been continuous from the Cold War period, but it has recently tried to improve its defense of its coasts and territorial waters by emphasizing joint interoperability with ground and air forces and using a host of small, cost-effective ships with an A2/AD focus. Like the Chinese, the Russians are using sea-, air- and ground-launched missiles as a key part of their defensive sea-denial doctrine.
Gorenburg noted that in addition to its three main missions of deterrence, coastal defense, and sea denial, the Russian Navy’s secondary missions include both traditional power projection operations and conveying the image of a great power through status projection, i.e. port calls by capital ships. But the Russian Navy’s out-of-area combat capabilities are likely to atrophy in the near future as legacy Soviet-era, large combat ships become less reliable and few replacements are built. The navy has long harbored aspirations to build new destroyers, big amphibious ships, and carriers, but given Russia’s long-term decline in naval research and development, its inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry, and its increasingly severe budgetary constraints, the Russian Navy is likely to remain primarily a deterrence and coastal defense force, albeit one that presents formidable access challenges to NATO navies. Russia has sought to ameliorate its relative lack of surface warfare capabilities through cruise missiles, which are “seen as force multipliers capable of offsetting the Russian shortfalls in ship numbers and quality” said Gorenburg.
The advent of new great power naval competition raises important questions for the United States, which has not faced two such capable naval competitors since the World War II. How much naval cooperation between China and Russia is likely? Does the growing alignment between Moscow and Beijing mean our navy must plan to handle simultaneous naval crises with Russia and China? Can “distributed lethality”—dispersing combat firepower across surface ships rather than concentrating it on naval aviation platforms—allow us to manage the Chinese and Russian threats without outspending our resources? “If we can stay in the game” over the near term, said Yoshihara, the situation could look considerably more favorable for the United States by the 2030s, when “big bills” will be coming due for China in the form of demographic decline, growing urban-rural inequality, and mounting debt issues.
John S. Van Oudenaren is assistant director at the Center for the National Interest