The Rise of Chinese “Sea Power”

In an age of missiles and terrorist threats, many people think that “sea power” is a word and concept from the past. Not in China. Indeed, China is increasingly emphasizing its naval and maritime interests: economic development, territorial management, energy and food security as well as trade. A navy sufficient to promote such activities is being rapidly developed and purchased from abroad (mostly from Russia, the EU when possible).

Many of China’s neighbors are alarmed. The United States Defense Department views China’s goal as being to build a series of military and diplomatic strategic bases – a so-called “string of pearls” – along the major sea lanes from the South China Sea to the oil rich Middle East.

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China seeks not only to secure its energy supplies, but to achieve broader security goals. For example, the Gwadar military port, which China is constructing in southwest Pakistan, is strategically placed to guard the throat of the Persian Gulf, with electronic eavesdropping posts to monitor ships -- including war ships -- moving through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.

Similarly, China is building container port facilities at Chittagong in Bangladesh for its naval and merchant fleets, as well as more naval bases and electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands owned by Myanmar in the Gulf of Bengal. Indeed, China’s ties with Myanmar’s military dictators look set to turn into a de facto military alliance. In nearby Thailand, China has invested $20 billion in a plan to build a canal across the Kra Isthmus to connect the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Siam, thereby providing an alternate oil import route that avoids the Strait of Malacca.

In the South China Sea, China is developing systems to allow large-scale deployment of naval and air force units by fortifying bases on Hai Nan Island and the southern Chinese coastal area. On the Spratley and Paracel islands -- seized from Vietnam and the Philippines respectively -- China is building port facilities to moor large surface ships and runways large enough to handle long-range bombers. In effect, China is in the process of building a group of literally unsinkable aircraft carriers in the middle of the South China Sea.

Why is China, usually considered a “continental power,” engaging in this maritime expansion? China dominated Asia in terms of “sea power” until the seventeenth century.  Indeed, during the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644), Admiral Zheng He’s “Great Navy” was the world’s most powerful. But for the last three centuries, China has had no global maritime strategy, nor has it possessed – or sought to possess – naval forces capable of supporting such a strategy.

Ironically, China’s current maritime strategy has its roots in the US, the nation that China appears to perceive as its key strategic rival, namely in the “sea power” theory developed by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan at the end of the nineteenth century. In The Influence of Sea Power upon History, published in 1890, Mahan argued that maritime power and economic development were deeply intertwined. Only the ability to protect trade and project power by sea could assure the vitality of this nexus.

Mahan identified the conditions that determine “sea power”:

·        geographical position and environment;

·        territorial capacity, specifically coastline

·        population;

·        character of people attuned to maritime expeditions;

·        character of government eager to ebrace “sea power”. 

These conditions applied to the US of Mahan’s time, and they surely apply to China today. China is already the world’s third largest trading nation and rapidly developing its port capacities to manage an ever-increasing volume of trade. Its ship tonnage (excluding fleets that sail under flags of convenience) is the fourth largest in the world. Rapid expansion of ship tonnage is part of China’s current Five-Year, and by 2010 its shipbuilding capabilities will likely rival those of Japan and Korea.

However, unlike the US and Britain in the past, China today must turn to overseas bases rather than colonization to enhance its “sea power” – hence its “string of pearls.” Still, China is transforming its coastal navy into an ocean-going navy at a pace far quicker than most experts reckoned possible. By 2010, China is expected to have 70 of the most modern surface vessels, several modern strategic nuclear submarines, and several tens of modernized attack submarines, exceeding the modern forces of both Taiwan’s navy and even Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, at least in quantitative terms.

Moreover, China plans to improve and expand its capabilities for assault landing and joint logistical support, both of which used to be weak points. This will provide China with necessary capabilities to invade, should China’s rulers wish, Japan’s most remote islands, including the disputed Senkaku Islands, as well as Taiwan. If China’s naval growth continues at its current pace, it may have the world’s largest naval force by 2020.

All of Asia must wake up to the arrival of Chinese-style aggressive “sea power.” Japan, in particular, must reformulate its national maritime strategy with this in mind. Japan, America and other traditional maritime countries must also once again treat “sea power” in Asia as a key component of their ability to defend their own national interests.