by Joseph Callo and Daniel Mandel
For years strategic experts dismissed the rise of the Chinese Navy. Their reasons included the theory that China, being a land power, lacked naval ambitions. A later school of thought claimed that as long as we recognized China as a fellow stakeholder in the Western Pacific, it would not become a military threat. More recently it is argued that as China continues to experience its remarkable economic development, it lacks incentive to threaten this achievement by precipitating armed conflict with America. Lately there also has been the deceptively comforting suggestion that China poses no real risk because its defense budget remains but a fraction of that of the United States.
The time has come, however, to challenge any and all warm and fuzzy assurances that the Chinese Navy does not represent a steadily increasing threat to U.S. interests, beginning with the following realities:
- Given the opacity of the Chinese regime, it’s difficult to deny that outside its own hierarchy, there is no public knowledge of the actual size of the Chinese defense budget. But on the face of the external evidence, almost everyone admits their defense budget is growing rapidly.
- It costs China far less to design, build, and maintain its military than it costs the United States to go through the same process. The different cost for military personnel alone is a major advantage for the Chinese.
- There is little likelihood that the Chinese regime, which is enjoying exceptional economic growth (accelerated by predatory trade policies and a willingness to ignore intellectual property rights) and with deep-seated resentment for previous exploitation by foreign powers is likely to be satisfied with parity with U.S. naval power.
- China has spent years influence-building among nations like, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in order to establish economic hegemony in the Western Pacific. And beyond the Pacific, China is also aggressively building economic ties in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and even the Caribbean. Those ties are contributors to Chinese global power that it is going to protect.
- China has become a major importer of oil, gas, and raw materials and an exporter of manufactured products. These imports and exports travel over sea routes it is going to protect.
There are some recent signs, however, that U.S. attitudes about the Chinese Navy may be changing, and the remarkable development of the Chinese Navy is beginning to come into sharper focus among U.S. strategic thinkers—and none too soon. This sharper focus stems, in large part, from China’s admission that it is going to develop an aircraft carrier capability and that it has already begun training programs for carrier pilots. Those revelations come after many years of official denials by China that it has any interest in aircraft carriers.
Since the installation of a Communist regime in China, its geostrategic perspective has advanced inexorably from an inward concentration to a coastal emphasis and then to a “near beyond” focus. And now based on China’s admission that it is going to develop a carrier capability, the next step is clear: China is shaping a navy for global power projection. China is poised to graduate to a navy built on the broad concepts of U.S. sea power visionary Admiral A.T. Mahan, who saw navies in a truly geostrategic perspective.
One of the most troubling factors in the situation is that rather than facing up to these clear indicators, the U.S. government and too much of the American public consider the U.S. national defense capability to be just another expense to be evaluated (read cut), along with such items as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and subsidies for farmers.
Given the different trajectories of the Chinese and U.S. navies, one can foresee unpleasant future scenarios. Let’s start with Taiwan. China’s recent suspension of China-U.S. military contacts over a new U.S.-Taiwan arms deal is but one indication that China remains determined to use military force to “return” that island to mainland China. The only real question is when, and the lack of U.S. naval preponderance to deter such an event would in all probability precipitate the answer to that question sooner rather than later.
The military conquest of Taiwan could then become an irresistible temptation for U.S. enemies and a deterrent for those we consider friends. An emboldened Cuba and Venezuela could threaten U.S. Gulf Coast oil resources, for example. Then add to the mix the prospect of the Chinese company that manages the Panama Canal closing that strategic choke point to U.S. ships, something Chinese carrier-based battle groups could enforce. At the same time, China could declare a naval quarantine of the Straits of Malacca, again enforced with naval tactical airpower. The effect on the U.S. economy and military posture would be disastrous.
A hesitant and preoccupied United States could then encourage adventurism in the Middle East, up to an including a coordinated Arab-Iranian assault upon Israel. Some of the countries recently adjudged the most stable and pro-Western, but now in flux, like Egypt, could join the assault. If over-stretched U.S. naval power in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean was checkmated by Chinese naval forces operating much the way the U.S. Navy operates today, Israel could be overrun. With that signal event, the world would know that Chinese hegemony had begun.
Other war game scenarios staged around an expanded Chinese Navy led by as many as seven or eight carrier battle groups are equally disturbing, particularly in light of the shrinking U.S. Navy that has gone from fifteen carrier battle groups to eleven and possibly even ten in the future. Moreover, reports confirm that China is continuing to expand its modern surface and submarine capabilities, while also developing an array of anti-ship missile systems that are designed to sink opposing aircraft carriers.
So, why worry about Chinese aircraft carriers?
Rear-Admiral (ret.) Joseph Callo is a naval historian and author of John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior. Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University.