The international activities and considerable military capabilities of the People’s Republic of China are of continuing interest to our professional audience. The Chinese have once again made headlines during the past several months as tensions have risen over possible flash points such as the Scarborough Reef and the Spratly, Paracel, and Senkaku islands. In late November 2013, China also announced the establishment of an air-defense identification zone covering the whole South China Sea. Captain James Fanell, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters, recently detailed a number of actions taken by China against its neighbors, to include a Chinese warship locking its fire-control radar onto a Japanese vessel and a massive amphibious exercise that could be preparation for “a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be expected as the seizure of the Senkakus.” Some worry these actions will prompt Japan, under the leadership of its strong nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to take a more aggressive stance toward China, further stirring this boiling cauldron.
To counter China’s moves in the Pacific, the United States must foster and maintain strong relationships with our partners in Southeast Asia. Rear Admiral Cindy Thebaud draws on her significant experience in this region of dynamic maritime activity to remind us of the increasing importance of developing operational rapport with its many navies. “The relationships and ability to operate with fellow navies in the region will not be there when we need them if we have not invested in these competencies ahead of time,” she emphasizes. For this reason, bilateral and multilateral training programs are more important than ever.
But in focusing on brawn, we should not overlook the value of brains. In addition to ships and aircraft, the Navy needs a sustainable plan for cultivating its intellectual talent so it can send the officers most well versed in the cultural nuances of the Asia-Pacific to support the rebalance. “While the Navy has strengthened its presence in the Pacific . . . its efforts to enhance its intellectual capital are still underreported, under-resourced, and too often undervalued,” opines Commander Tuan N. Pham. He highlights the Asia-Pacific Hands Program as an initiative that gives select personnel a foundational education in the region, as well as his suggestions for making this cadre of well-informed officers more robust.
Most of the conversation about the Asia-Pacific ultimately centers around the numerous islands dotting the map and the territorially contested nature of several of them. But while islands are often the source of disputes, they also may offer the solution, asserts Naval War College sinologist and frequent Proceedings contributor James R. Holmes. The area’s island-defined geography is the friend of the U.S.-Japan alliance, affording “abundant opportunities” to deny “China’s military access to the vast maneuver space of the Western Pacific while hampering its movements up and down the Asian seaboard.” But which historical model should the island-chain perimeter defense follow? The answer suggests that what has worked in the past as a line in the sand can also work as a line on the sea.
Although the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has grown in size and capability, China still has a key maritime weakness, one that is often overlooked. But not by Naval War College professor Milan Vego. The vast majority of China’s trade is by sea—85 percent in 2011—meaning that the security of its sea lanes is vital to continued economic growth. Chinese merchant vessels must transit a number of international choke points to reach mainland ports, and Dr. Vego argues that at this time the country cannot adequately protect its trade. All this could spell danger should China engage in a war at sea.
But make no mistake: The PLAN is improving and becoming a more professional naval force with each passing year. Since the 1980s, Captain Dale Rielage informs us, China’s navy has worked to overcome its past emphasis on ideology and develop the technical expertise that it had lacked. As a result, the service has made significant gains toward achieving a mature maintenance culture that “will keep the PLAN surface force ready to answer all bells.”
Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight present an eye-opening analysis of Chinese press reports that point to the country’s accelerated activity regarding ocean-floor sensors placed at strategic locations along its coast. They found that the Chinese have been diligently studying Cold War history to guide their decisions on how exactly to implement sensor technology. Based on what the authors have discovered, China’s neglect of antisubmarine warfare is also becoming a thing of the past.
War, of course, is not inevitable, especially if other options present themselves to settle disputes in South and East Asia. The number-one answer, says Captain Stuart Belt, is to follow established legal norms to keep China’s territorial aspirations in check. Even though the United States is not a party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it supports its provisions, and the author believes that “meaningful adherence by states to international law is the best chance of calming the waters of the Western Pacific.”