It is high time to move on from the sterile debate over whether China can build an oceangoing navy. It has, therefore it can. Like past great powers on the make, China can go to sea swiftly given sufficient resources and resolve. Indeed, peering into history—as we do here in cursory fashion—makes it possible to approximate how long it takes a would-be sea power to construct a modern fleet. The historical record since the Age of Sail suggests that a determined aspirant can construct a serious regional force within about 15 years of resolving to do so. It can put a blue-water fleet to sea roughly 30 years after laying the first keels—again, providing it remains steadfast about the effort.
It is also time to discard the contempt toward the quality of China’s navy that has been de rigueur among China-watchers for many years. Not every one of the rising sea powers reviewed here—Imperial Japan, the United States, Imperial Germany, the Soviet Union—established itself as a seagoing hegemon. But every one of them vaulted into the forefront of naval power, making itself a peer competitor for the reigning hegemon. One, Germany, could have prevailed had top commanders formulated better and smarter strategy. Another, the Soviet Union, never saw its maritime aspirations put to the test of combat.
There is no reason to assume China will fare worse than these predecessors in its quest to rule the waves. How to cope with a challenger whose navy is burgeoning in numbers, and by many measures of quality, is the task before a United States struggling to preserve its primacy in Asia. The sooner America takes this challenge seriously, the better its chances of managing the regional order without resorting to arms—or of losing out altogether.
Great Leaps Forward at Sea
A retrospective look at Western commentary on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is jarring in light of today’s realities. During the 1990s, Western analysts largely discounted China’s naval prospects. Writing in 1994, international-security scholar Michael Gallagher cataloged a litany of deficiencies plaguing the PLAN. Most prominent among them were shortfalls in funding, modern ships and submarines, and research-and-development capacity. Gallagher ventured that the navy faced “the high probability of merely being locked into a higher level of technological obsolescence than is now the case.”1 In other words, China risked falling further behind Western seafaring states than it already was.
Similarly, a 1996 monograph by the Center for Naval Analyses’ Christopher Yung cast doubt on China’s ability to field a regional navy by 2010. The author defined a regional navy as a fleet “capable of operating beyond China’s coasts, achieving some limited (but important) strategic objectives, and damaging an intervening foreign navy.” After considering domestic production, reverse engineering, and foreign acquisitions as potential avenues for modernization, Yung found that none of these approaches, alone or together, would give Beijing a capable regional fleet by 2010. His report foretold that a “regionally oriented Chinese Navy” might take to the seas by 2020.2
There’s a quaint feel to such prognoses considering the PLAN’s advances in quality and quantity in the interim. Western assessments began to shift by the mid-2000s, in some cases quite radically. Some analysts now afford the Chinese navy a degree of grudging respect that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. Having long voiced skepticism, for instance, Professor Bernard Cole now concludes that the pace of China’s modernization will yield a navy “capable of denying command of the East and South China Seas to another power, and of commanding those seas for discrete periods,” before the end of this decade.
Quite so. A brief summary of key milestones illustrates just how far the PLAN has come in a short time. In the early 1990s, no destroyers, frigates, or submarines in the inventory qualified as modern by Western standards. By the mid-1990s, however, the Chinese naval force structure began to metamorphose as near-state-of-the-art vessels entered service in succession. The mid-2000s witnessed a particularly large influx of new warships of all types.
Between 2000 and 2010, China’s fleet of modern attack submarines increased more than sixfold, while the number of newly commissioned destroyers and frigates tripled and doubled, respectively. Equally important, Chinese shipyards commenced serial production of the Jiangkai II frigate, the Song- and Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, and the Houbei fast-attack craft. And in 2012, after a decade of leisurely fleet experimentation, the PLAN apparently settled on the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer—a descendant of previous DDGs billed as Aegis equivalents—as its design for mass production.3 Only 20 years have elapsed since China began to construct and import frontline fighting ships. Such progress is impressive by any standard.
Rising Sun Over the Waves
Writing in 1902, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan noted that the two most transformed powers of the late 19th century were the United States and Japan. The United States, he opined, had undergone a spiritual metamorphosis to accompany its Industrial Revolution. Japan had undergone a material conversion.4 Its naval modernization program began in earnest in the late 1870s, more than two decades after Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” opened Japan to the world at gunpoint. The archipelago had been under military rule and almost entirely secluded from the outside world since the 17th century. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 overthrew the Tokugawa shoguns, returning the emperor to his customary place at the center of the Japanese state.
The Meiji government inherited a coastal navy from the shoguns and from the private navies maintained by various feudal domains. The early Meiji fleet was a hodgepodge—unsurprisingly in light of its fragmented origins. Japan acquired its first armored warships—a frigate and two corvettes—in 1878. The three men-of-war were purpose-built for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in British shipyards. Seven years later, the IJN commissioned two protected cruisers. They were likewise constructed in Britain. Japan next turned to France, purchasing three cruisers during the 1880s. And in 1893, Great Britain delivered the protected cruiser Yoshino, at the time the fastest ship of her class in the world.
These cruisers became the nucleus of the force that would defeat Imperial China’s Beiyang Fleet during the Battle of the Yalu River (1894). The remainder of the Chinese retreated to Weihaiwei, a seaport captured from landward in 1895. The effective demise of the Beiyang Fleet handed the IJN command of the Yellow Sea for the rest of the first Sino-Japanese War. The Meiji government wrung a massive indemnity from China’s Qing Dynasty as part of the peace settlement—and promptly reinvested the proceeds in additional naval armaments.
In about 16 years, then, Japan’s brand-new imperial regime was able to build, train, and equip a naval force that permanently knocked China—Asia’s historic central power, and the possessor of what appeared to be its dominant indigenous fleet—out of the contest for regional maritime supremacy. The victory cemented Japan’s standing as an emerging sea power while affirming its reputation in the West.
A decade after its triumph over the Qing Navy, the IJN boasted a formidable, balanced fleet composed of 6 battleships, 8 armored cruisers, 13 protected cruisers, and 20 destroyers. By 1904, Japanese mariners stood poised to face off against—and smash—the navy of a European great power, namely tsarist Russia. The Battle of the Yellow Sea (August 1904) sealed the fate of the Russian Pacific Squadron, and the Battle of Tsushima (May 1905) destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet sent as reinforcement.
By late 1905, when treaty negotiations at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, put an end to the Russo-Japanese War, Japan had toppled the regional maritime order—and it had done so less than three decades after the Meiji emperor decreed that the island nation would bid for nautical eminence.
Columbia, Gem of the Ocean
Crudely speaking, the 15- and 30-year rules held for the United States as well. In Mahan’s words, the U.S. Navy underwent a period of “dead apathy,” both material and intellectual, after bulking up for blockade duty during the Civil War. By the late 1870s the Fleet had dwindled to around 50 creaky wooden men-of-war. It was outclassed even in the Americas. U.S. mariners were unable to back their nation’s diplomacy with steel.
For instance, the U.S. Navy’s feebleness kept Washington from mediating an end to the War of the Pacific (1879–84), a conflict pitting Chile against Bolivia and Peru.5 Historian Walter McDougall recounts how the Chilean government told U.S. leaders to “mind their own business or watch their Pacific squadron descend to Davy Jones’s locker.” This was no idle threat. McDougall adds that, because the Chilean Navy had battleships and the U.S. Navy had none, the Chileans “could even have bombarded San Francisco had they felt especially pepperish.”6
This was intolerable for the self-appointed guardian of the Western Hemisphere.7 In 1883, to reverse the nautical decay exposed by such encounters, Congress ordered construction of the U.S. Navy’s first armored, steam-driven battle fleet. This initial phase in America’s maritime rise culminated in the Spanish-American War (1898), a “splendid little war” that demolished the Spanish Empire while ratifying the U.S. Navy’s hemispheric supremacy.8
Soon afterward, unable to outmatch the U.S. Navy and facing a new threat close to home—Imperial Germany and its High Seas Fleet—the Royal Navy made a discreet exit from the New World. That left the United States atop the regional marine order. Americans contented themselves with a navy second to none but Great Britain’s until 1916, when the exigencies of world war drove U.S. political leaders to conclude they needed a navy second to none.9 Thus the United States stood first in its own neighborhood 15 years after commencing its naval expansion. It stood equal to the Royal Navy, the world’s biggest and strongest, less than four decades after embarking on its path to naval might.
That a rising America could put a great fleet to sea with such aplomb should give doubters of China’s naval potential pause. It has been done before. Formidable sea power is not solely the prerogative of island empires like Great Britain. Islands boast formidable natural defenses in the form of the maritime ramparts surrounding them. They can spare themselves the rigors of land defense while concentrating their energies and resources on plying the sea. But continental powers with secure frontiers—powers like the United States, bordered by friendly, weak neighbors—enjoy similar liberty to venture seaward. Though less permissive than late 19th-century America’s, China’s continental surroundings are scarcely forbidding at the moment. This augurs well for its seaborne future.
Kaiser’s Dashed Dreams, Kremlin’s Rapid Rise
Imperial Germany too fielded a great navy with dispatch, although World War I terminated its quest for global sea power before Berlin fulfilled it. Intent on securing a place in the sun of empire, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisers, most notably Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, exhorted Germans to support shipbuilding. The Reichstag allocated funds for battleship construction in its Navy Bill of 1898, and the naval race with Great Britain was on.
By 1916, when the two navies met at the Battle of Jutland, the German “luxury fleet”—an expensive albeit unnecessary asset—could give as good as it got in combat against Britain’s Grand Fleet, the dominant force of the age.10 Had Berlin used the High Seas Fleet more aggressively, German seafarers might have broken or outflanked the distant blockade by which the Royal Navy cordoned off the North Sea.11 Faulty strategy—not irremediable problems with the men and matériel comprising the High Seas Fleet—terminated the German bid for naval mastery.
The Soviet naval buildup commenced in earnest following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which punctuated Moscow’s maritime weakness in dramatic fashion. Under the tutelage of Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, who assumed command of the Soviet Navy in 1956, the Soviets arguably pulled off their naval rise more quickly than did any other aspirant examined here.
By 1970, for instance, the Soviet Navy embarked on an ambitious series of exercises titled Okean. During Okean ’75 the navy surged units into oceans and seas spanning the globe. The maneuver took Western observers aback, coming as it did on the heels of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. During that conflict the Soviet contingent cruising the Eastern Mediterranean outnumbered the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. The peacetime Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean leapt from 5 warships in 1964 to about 50 in 1980. The Soviet Pacific Fleet also extended its reach into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea in the 1970s and ’80s. The Soviet fleet could clearly operate well beyond the 1,500-nautical-mile defense perimeter it sketched for itself on the map.12
Such endeavors demonstrated that the Soviet Navy was a force on the march. It matured into a blue-water navy well in advance of the 30-year standard. Indeed, it beat the 15-year benchmark we posit for a navy to make its ascent to regional sea power. The fall of the Soviet Union foreshortened the nation’s maritime rise. Still, it remains clear that the Soviets constructed an impressive armada in short order—and deployed that fleet not just off its own shores but around the globe. We need not conclude that the Soviet Navy would have defeated Western navies in battle to appreciate an accomplishment of such scope.
Consider the results of the nautical enterprises reviewed here. Japan mastered Asian waters for nearly four decades. U.S. maritime primacy in the Western Hemisphere has remained unchallenged for more than a century, while the U.S. Navy has ruled the seven seas for seven decades. Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union fell short. But each was a fierce competitor for maritime supremacy, squaring off on equal terms against the predominant sea power of its day. In short, every aspirant either fulfilled its aims or gave the marine hegemon fits. Will China do less?
What to Do?
This excursion though history reveals two things. One, determined powers can assemble great navies quickly. And two, the type of government in an aspiring sea power appears to make little difference to the pace of naval development. Liberal America pulled it off at roughly the same speed as authoritarian Japan, Germany, and Soviet Russia. Our historical survey thus casts some doubt on what Mahan said about the relationship between governing arrangements and sea power. He maintained that “despotic power, wielded with judgment and consistency, has created at times a great sea commerce and a brilliant navy with greater directness than can be reached by the slower processes of a free people.”13 Rulers of command societies could ordain that national resources go to shipbuilding and related activities, and off resources went.
Our account suggests that Mahan had his political science half-right. Both authoritarian and liberal regimes can build up maritime strength quickly. Free societies can pursue a navy as fervently as authoritarian ones despite having to work through constitutional processes. The level of political commitment, not the political system, constitutes the prime mover. But Mahan rightly observes that authoritarian regimes are apt to let sea power atrophy when other problems arise. The despot may die, giving way to a successor indifferent to oceanic pursuits. Or he may let his attention wander, taking resources from seaborne enterprises and impoverishing the navy and the industries that support it. Sea power is more firmly entrenched in liberal commercial societies, simply because maritime commerce empowers constituencies that demand it.14
Geography compounds the problem for authoritarian powers that dwell on land. Sea power appears brittle for them in large part because they must field a navy while defending endangered land borders. This is why Mahan insisted no nation could be supreme both on land and at sea for long.15
This innate vulnerability of continental powers such as China is something Washington can exploit. Tranquil land frontiers have freed up resources for Chinese sea power. By courting partners on shore, Washington can pose problems for Beijing at sea—detracting from its maritime project. America can turn Mahanian logic to its advantage.
Strange, isn’t it? To check domineering Chinese policies at sea, U.S. leaders should build up influence on land.
1. Michael G. Gallagher, “China’s Illusory Threat to the South China Sea,” International Security, vol. 19, no. 1 (Summer 1994), 181.
2. Christopher D. Yung, People’s War at Sea: Chinese Naval Power in the Twenty-First Century (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1996), 52.
3. Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 10 December 2012).
4. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political (Boston: Little, Brown, 1902) 17.
5. Bruce W. Farcau, The Ten Cents War: Chile, Peru, and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, 1879–1884 (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2000).
6. Walter McDougall, Let the Sea Make a Noise (New York: Perennial, 2004), 372–73.
7. Dexter Perkins, A History of the Monroe Doctrine (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).
8. Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 223–249.
9. Sprout and Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, 317–346.
10. Holger Herwig, Luxury Fleet: Imperial German Navy, 1888–1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980).
11. Wolfgang Wegener, The Naval Strategy of the World War (1929; reprint, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).
12. George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 367–417.
13. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890; reprint, New York: Dover, 1987), 58–59.
14. A point advanced in Peter Padfield, Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind (Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2000).
15. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, 1897), 210.