The past several months have heard a steady drumbeat of news stories describing the adverse effect the ongoing budget mess is having on the readiness of our armed forces. Whether it’s canceled deployments, delayed maintenance, or smaller numbers of next-generation weapon systems, there’s a sense among many that we’re losing ground against those who might wish us ill. Topping that threat list for some is the People’s Republic of China. Captain James Fanell, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, made waves at the Naval Institute-AFCEA WEST conference in January when he said that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) foray into blue-water operations is intended specifically to counter the U.S. Navy. “Make no mistake,” he warned, “the Chinese navy is focused on war at sea and about sinking an opposing fleet.” His comments reverberated far and wide, in print and online, from various Asian media outlets to numerous defense publications to The Wall Street Journal.
So what is the real nature of the threat? Or is there one? If so, how serious? Can the Chinese really put a force to sea that could challenge the United States and its regional allies? Our authors this month tackle these questions.
Anyone who still remains doubtful about China’s ability to quickly attain world-class sea-power status need only look to the past to realize that such a speedy ascent has been accomplished before—more than once. Frequent Proceedings contributors James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara look at the relevant historical lessons afforded by the rise of the Japanese, U.S., German, and Soviet navies—all of which burst onto the world stage with alacrity. History repeats itself, and can repeat itself yet again.
And it appears the PLAN very much wants to be a bigger player on that world stage. While much attention has been focused on Beijing’s interest in its own coastal approaches and adjacent waters, the past four years have seen the Chinese navy getting acclimated to the far seas as well. As Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange report, China’s deployments to the Gulf of Aden to take part in counterpiracy operations have yielded vital experience in such matters as long-range logistics, replenishment, foreign-port usage, and sailors’ well-being. It has all been, as one Chinese commissar put it, an ideal “live drill for us.”
Operating at sea for long periods of time at great distances from friendly ports is also a vital skill any aspiring submarine force must master. For all the hype about China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, “submarines are still the sharpest arrow in China’s quiver,” according to Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight. As their boats venture farther from home, Beijing has focused on keeping its subsurface fleet well supplied and in a high state of readiness. By improving its submarine-logistics system the PLAN could be on the way to becoming one of the world’s leading undersea forces in as little as a decade.
But others see less of a threat and some even an opportunity. Speaking of the Liaoning, is the much-ballyhooed aircraft carrier recently launched by the Chinese as the centerpiece of their fleet really the giant leap in naval-aviation capability it’s being cracked up to be? Considering the many factors at play, such as the ship’s weak defenses against diesel submarines, retired Captain Robert C. Rubel says the Liaoning is more of a showpiece for now, lacking any real naval-aviation capacity, especially compared with the carriers being fielded by the U.S. Navy.
Going completely against the grain, Lieutenant Commander Jason Grower argues that convincing China to join the United States in a multilateral framework for joint humanitarian-aid and disaster-response efforts offers an avenue for improving military-to-military relations between the two powers. In addition to the obvious benefit of more quickly providing aid to those in need, such an arrangement would also allow the Chinese government and military to develop and exercise ties similar to those enjoyed by their U.S. counterparts, thus giving China the opportunity “to become a more fully functioning member of the international community.”
China’s naval capabilities will continue to grow and improve in the coming years. Whether those developments will make them an adversary or regional partner remains to be seen, but you can be sure we’ll continue discussing them in our open forum.