China Goes to Sea

BRUSSELS – China has traditionally been a continental power, with Asia’s strategic rivalries and relentlessly fluctuating spheres of influence blocking its international ambitions and preventing it from becoming a dominant maritime power beyond the Taiwan Strait. Or so many have thought. Nowadays, the People’s Republic is increasingly challenging this view, having shifted its naval strategy from defending its territorial waters to guarding its Pacific frontier and securing its interests overseas.

Given China’s vast merchant fleet, shipyards in Shanghai and Guangdong have always bustled with activity. Today, however, the focus is on a new kind of vessel. Over the course of about a year, China has laid the keels of three advanced destroyers, seven state-of-the art frigates, two large landing platform docks, and, most likely, a new generation of corvettes.

Add to that the much-publicized launch of the Shi Lang aircraft carrier last year, plus several submarines, replenishment ships, and a sizeable fleet of stealthy missile boats, and it becomes clear that China’s naval aspirations will no longer be confined to its coastal waters. In fact, the country now builds more surface combat vessels and submarines than its regional counterweight, the United States.

China long ago abandoned Mao’s effort to reduce the country’s vulnerability by relocating strategic industries to remote provinces. Today, China considers itself both maritime and continental. Its coastline, after all, is longer than that of, say, the United Kingdom or India. These littorals harbor most of the country’s wealth and allow it to tap into the global market via a dense bundle of shipping lines.