Storm Warnings?

By Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The “lack of transparency” lament may have, unfortunately, become a buzz phrase for U.S. policymakers and leaders. But what do we mean by it—no kidding, in plain English? For starters, there is a deplorable lack of transparency in our own response to the military buildup in China, especially with regard to its navy.

By any measure, the growth in size, capability, and professionalism of the PLAN over the past 10–15 years has been stunning. By perusing open-source documents, one can easily ascertain that the military budget of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has grown by double digits throughout the past decade. In addition, the PLAN has begun to operate more as a blue-water navy, moving surely and steadily beyond its coastal roots and demonstrating concepts of operations to go along with technologies that result in a clear focus on anti-access and area denial in the western Pacific.

What the Chinese Have Going

The PLAN has developed and deployed sophisticated air-defense systems, wake-homing torpedoes, and long-range antiship cruise missiles, while the PLA has even tested a capability for long-range ballistic missiles to be used against aircraft carriers—according to Edward Wong in the 23 April 2010 New York Times .

The size of the PLAN also has seen a significant growth in numbers of front-line assets. A Pentagon report on the PRC military estimates a navy of about 260 vessels, including 75 “principal combatants”—that is, major warships and more than 60 submarines—the world’s largest conventional submarine force. Wong’s Times article quotes Professor Huang Jing, a scholar of the Chinese military at the National University of Singapore, as remarking: “We were in a blinded situation. We thought the Chinese military was 20 years behind us, but we suddenly realized that China is catching up.”

Having noted all this, does it really mean the rise of the PLAN is a cause for storm warnings? Not necessarily. It depends on what the PRC intends to do with its growing navy. But before we focus on that issue, following is a quick case study of just one element of the PLAN: the Houbei-class guided-missile fast-attack craft. These are of a modern design, about 225-ton vessels with long-range fourth-generation antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). In fact, it is only that one mission for which these vessels are really designed. Recent press reports indicate that probably up to 83 of them are in commission, and this force will likely grow to about 100. Their combat range is nominally only about 300 nautical miles. The eight on-board ASCMs, the YJ-83s, have a range of 135-plus nautical miles, providing a potent offensive punch. So to recap, a force of 800 ASCMs could deploy on small, fast, cheap single-mission vessels. How much transparency is required to understand what their mission is?

‘Stale’ and ‘Opaque’

It is time for the United States to get beyond the stale and, quite frankly, opaque declaration that the PLAN needs to be more transparent with regard to its intentions. Admiral Willard took a great first step during his 2010 testimony by stating that it “is difficult to reconcile with the evolving military capabilities that appear designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region or exercise aggression or coercion of its neighbors, including U.S. treaty allies and partners.”

It may be time to go beyond the “you need to be more transparent” and get to challenging the PRC about what we see—with real specifics. For some reason, we haven’t been very transparent about our concerns, and the reason is unclear. But there was a hint of why in an April 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) study on China’s naval modernization. The study reports that in the December 2009 draft of the QDR report, Pentagon officials deleted several passages and softened others about China’s military buildup. While it is clearly within the purview and responsibility of the Secretary of Defense and the Undersecretary for Policy to edit the draft QDR report as they see fit, the CRS report goes on to describe an interesting sequence reported in the press.

Redacted from the 3 December draft was a passage declaring that “prudence requires” the United States to prepare for “disruptive competition and conflict” with China. Why was this passage dropped, as well as others? According to the CRS-reported news account, one Pentagon official said that the Obama administration worried that harsh words might upset Chinese officials when the United States and China are so economically intertwined. “You don’t piss off your banker,” the Pentagon official is quoted as saying.

‘Over a Barrel?’

Okay, so let’s evaluate how much over a barrel China has the United States in the economic sense, particularly with regard to debt. According to a 20 February 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal , China at that time held nearly $755 billion in U.S. treasuries, more than one fifth of all U.S. debt held by foreign nations (now more like one fourth). Said another way, the United States took $750 billion in cash from the Chinese, and the Chinese got $750 billion IOUs. Now, who has leverage over whom?

Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman opined in a 14 March 2010 New York Times op-ed:

If China dumped its U.S. assets, the value of the dollar would fall against other major currencies, such as the Euro—a good thing for the U.S. as our goods would be more competitive and reduce our trade deficit. On the other hand, it would be a bad thing for China, which would suffer large losses on its dollar holdings. In short, right now the U.S. has China over a barrel, not the other way around.

It is time for the United States to move beyond our reluctance to be open and frank with the Chinese—and thus our friends and allies in the region—because of apparent fear that they have the United States over an economic barrel.

There is no doubt that the fear of an invasion of Taiwan has abated quite a bit since the March 2008 election of Ma Ying-Jeou as its president. During the run-up to the election, military posturing by the PRC ratcheted higher almost daily. It was no accident that we had two U.S. carrier strike groups at sea conducting “routine” training exercises in the weeks before the election. Now, given the apparent lessening in cross-strait tensions, are there any real concerns regarding the PRC and East Asia?

Consider These Facts

• According to The Washington Post , China has increased its use of oil at the average pace of 6–7 percent a year since 1990—more than 20 straight years! At this pace, the PRC will catch the U.S. rate of petroleum usage in just over 20 more years.

• By 2020, China is expected to import 7.3 million barrels of crude oil per day—one half of Saudi Arabia’s planned output, as reported in Foreign Affairs . By way of comparison, today the Chinese import 4.7 million barrels per day and the United States about 9.7 million.

• A recent article in the International Herald Tribune states the PRC is preparing to build three times as many nuclear power plants in the coming decade as the rest of the world. However, electrical demand is growing so rapidly in the PRC that even if that happens, they will generate only 9.7 percent of the country’s power.

• According to National Geographic Magazine , today China produces and consumes nearly one third of the world’s steel, more than long-time industrial powers Japan, Germany, and the United States combined.

• David Hale Global Economics indicates that China now consumes 25 percent of Australia’s exports, up from 12 percent just two years previously, and has invested $44 billion in Australia since 2007.

• According to the South China Morning Post , while the PRC accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s population, it has only 7 percent of the world’s fresh water, and its vast system of 87,000 reservoirs is not in the best of shape; 43 percent are said to be in poor condition.

All of this is to say that China is facing serious natural-resource challenges, including the need to import an ever-increasing amount of raw materials. But doesn’t this argue for the need of an improved blue-water navy to secure indispensible but potentially vulnerable sea lines of communication? Of course it does. And if that was the evident reason for the PLAN buildup, it would make a lot of sense. But what are we seeing? 100 Houbei fast-attack craft with a combat range of only 300 nautical miles? Antiship ballistic missiles focused on killing large-deck aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, greatly increased deployments of SA-20 long-range surface-to-air missiles, anti-satellite demonstrations, greatly enhanced cyber attacks, and the world’s largest conventional submarine force? These capabilities are not only about ensuring the free flow of energy to the PRC.

Politics in the South China Sea

On the political side, the PRC has reasserted its claims to most of the South China Sea and has reinforced its position in the region, including the contested Spratly and Paracel islands. The PLAN is aggressively challenging regional nations of the South China Sea and within the contested island chains. The Chinese are conducting what is termed “legal warfare,” interpreting certain international laws in ways contrary to international norms, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—most prominently within their claimed exclusive economic zones (EEZ). In addition, and this is important, the Chinese have passed domestic laws that further reinforce their sovereignty claims and set up situations whereby they can justify taking actions “legally.”

So isn’t it time for the United States to get past its lame “lack of transparency” complaint and speak in plain language? Shouldn’t the United States publicly announce that it stands against any use by the PRC of its navy to coerce East Asian nations into ceding sovereignty of the resource-rich South China Sea to the PRC?

Of course, these are words, but words are important. However, deeds are even more so. The United States must be willing to stay engaged in the region, specifically in the South China Sea, even in the face of the PLA’s focus on access-denial capability to keep us far from the point of possible coercion.

The Dreaded Carrier-Killer

A recent spate of press reports about the PRC’s antiship ballistic missile, the DF-21, detailed how it will keep U.S. carriers and other power-projection forces far away from the South China Sea. Those reports apparently have had a negative impact on our friends and allies in the region, the thought being that if the U.S. Fleet cannot get to the South China Sea in times of crisis, including crises over resources, then the balance of power may have already shifted.

Now, cynics claim the U.S. Navy placed this discussion of DF-21 and access denial in the public discourse—all to justify increased shipbuilding. But such conspiracy theories are extremely overstated. So what does the United States need to do here? It is time—or even past time—for a public declaration that we will not tolerate any attempt to push U.S. or allied forces out of the South China Sea. It is critical that we not appear to be intimidated by the PLAN’s access-denial plans and capabilities, and that we will remain in the international waters of the South China Sea (as well as the East China Sea) to ensure equitable access to potential resources there. It is equally important that the United States not allow our friends and allies in the region to grow a perception that the PLAN has the ability to trump U.S. presence if it chooses to do so.

According to Wong’s Times article, China has said it will tolerate no “foreign interference” in its territory in the South China Sea, even going so far as declaring it to then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. In addition, and for the first time, the Chinese have elevated this area, also known as the “cow tongue,” to the status of “vital national interest.” Don’t those sorts of provocative statements make it even more imperative that the United States elevate freedom of the seas in the South China Sea to the level of a U.S. vital national interest? We can start by becoming a party to the UNCLOS. Today, 158 countries, including China, are party to it. The United States is not. Instead of standing with most of the world, as a non-signatory, we stand with North Korea and Iran—not the side of an issue we should be on.

We must not be seen as being intimidated by Chinese harassment of U.S. survey ships, Japanese warships, or any other vessels operating peacefully in anyone’s EEZ. PRC vessels have conducted radical and unsafe maneuvers at close quarters that could very easily have resulted in significant damage, including loss of life.

Why is it important not to back down in the face of a PLA anti-access capability? Singapore’s former leader and senior mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, has the answer: “U.S. core interest requires that it remains the superior power in the Pacific. To give up this position would diminish America’s role throughout the world.”

Conflict Is Not Invevitable

The intention here is not to bash the PLAN and the PRC. There is nothing inevitable about a potential clash between our two navies or our two nations. In fact, if the United States were a lot more transparent about its concerns in the region with regard to China, it could probably reach a glide path that moves more toward cooperation than confrontation. But until the Chinese show us by their words, and more important, their deeds, that their naval buildup is not about coercing the nations of the region—particularly over resources—then we have to be capable of making such an outcome, quite simply, not worth the risk.

Let us focus on that credible combat capability so critical to deterring coercion in Asia. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made significant headlines when he stated in a couple of speeches that we need to question why the power-projection capability of the U.S. Navy is so large. Actually, Secretary Gates laid down this marker for the first time in his seminal article in the January 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs where he wrote: “As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, for example, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies—11 of which are U.S. allies or partners.”

In the context of the rise of the PLAN, does this statement make sense? After all, what are the missions we need our Navy to conduct—to simply go up against other navies’ carriers? Secretary Gates actually answered that question in his very next paragraph while discussing how hard-pressed the United States would be to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, given the two ongoing land wars: “U.S. air and sea forces have ample untapped striking power should the need arise to deter or punish aggression—whether on the Korean peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait.”

Conventional Deterrence

Rightfully, if unintentionally, Secretary Gates laid out deterrence as one of the key missions of the U.S. Navy (and of the U.S. Air Force, as well). And what do you need in order to provide a credible conventional deterrence? Ready, combat-credible forces, forward-deployed and capable of making a potential adversary’s decision to use force an unsuccessful option.

Let’s explore this conventional deterrence mission with regard to China. First, it must be understood that conventional deterrence is not yet a very well-understood concept—let alone mission. In Washington political parlors, when one talks of deterrence, the conversation quickly shifts to nuclear deterrence and the sometimes-byzantine world of arms control and parity in the world of strategic deterrence. But what could be of more strategic significance than a strategy of forward-deployed, combat-credible conventional forces that serve to deter nations from militarily coercing friends and allies of the United States into agreements they would not otherwise have been willing to accept? Conventional deterrence is arguably the key mission of the U.S. Navy in today’s globalized world. We, the United States, should not hesitate to unapologetically fill this role, especially in the western Pacific. After all, we too are a Pacific nation, with mutual defense treaties with six nations in the area.

This conventional-deterrence mission should not be considered provocative. If China has no intentions of using its navy in a coercive manner, then the U.S conventional-deterrence mission remains a passive, yet on-call capability. So, given the buildup of the PLAN’s anti-access capabilities and the provocative statements of PRC leadership about claims on the energy reserves in the South China Sea, isn’t it good policy to clearly state that U.S. forces, along with our friends and allies in the region, will execute a strong conventional-deterrence mission in the western Pacific? And furthermore, given that conventional deterrence of the PRC—along with North Korea and Iran—is a primary mission of U.S. naval forces, isn’t it time to stop sending the signal that our Navy is too large and too expensive because it has more carriers than other nations of the world? Only the United States can provide a global and credible conventional-deterrent force. This mission, if done well, is the cornerstone of global peace and prosperity. To belittle the size of this global naval force is counterproductive to a successful and critically important national mission.

In conclusion, this is not a clarion call for a new Cold War. In fact, arguably, we move much closer to better understanding and increased cooperation if we publicly articulate our concerns to China. Just as important, this public articulation will go a long way toward reassuring our friends and allies throughout the region. It is only when we, the United States, are not transparent that misunderstanding and suspicion rule the day and threaten what can be a growing, peaceful relationship between the Chinese and the American people.

Vice Admiral Crowder is the former Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, and former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Operations, Plans & Strategy). This article is adapted from the keynote address he delivered at the start of a one-day National Defense University symposium titled “China’s Naval Modernization: Cause for Storm Warnings?”


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