On 13 March, after much anticipation, the leaders of America’s Sea Services—Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., and Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul F. Zukunft—released the nation’s new maritime strategy. Unlike its 2007 predecessor, this document is more specific in listing potential threats to the global maritime commons, including China’s naval expansion into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which “presents challenges when it employs force or intimidation against other sovereign nations to assert territorial claims.” This in turn, it warns, “contributes to tension and instability, potentially leading to miscalculation or even escalation.”
One of the main instruments China uses to try to enforce these claims is its growing coast guard fleet. So much of the discussion among Western naval analysts has focused on Beijing’s ambitious aspirations to wield a Great Power–worthy force replete with carriers, subsurface assets, and so on. But in the meantime the People’s Republic has, at an almost astonishingly accelerated tempo, managed to create the world’s largest coast guard, as Ryan Martinson of the China Maritime Studies Institute reports in his eye-opening article. Largely composed of vessels from various state maritime-law enforcement agencies, this “second navy” is being enthusiastically deployed by the Chinese as a form of aggressive “patrol-boat diplomacy” in one territorially disputed area after another. Unlike the U.S. Coast Guard, China’s version has been labeled by some observers, such as former deputy chief of staff for intelligence at U.S. Pacific Fleet, retired Navy Captain Jim Fanell, as nothing more than a “full-time harassment organization.”
But be sure that China is not ignoring its blue-water capabilities. Although details of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) conventional submarine force are relatively well documented, not much is known about the capabilities of its recently developed nuclear-attack submarines (SSNs). Professor Lyle Goldstein went straight to the source—in this case, Chinese naval magazines—to learn if the reported presence of a Chinese SSN in the Indian Ocean a year ago suggests “a new era in Chinese naval power projection” or a program “plagued by difficulties.” Drawing from recent articles by Chinese naval analysts, Dr. Goldstein examines the differences between the first-generation Type 091 submarine and the second-generation Type 093 SSN, as well as the concern that the latter has much room for improvement. Reassuring revelations aside, Goldstein concludes, “Today, a dangerous momentum is developing in the nascent undersea rivalry between China and the United States. . . . For its part, Washington should also attempt to ease the tensions fueling undersea rivalry, since the threat perception in China with respect to the U.S. Navy submarine force is now acute.”
China is also expanding its abilities in the cyber realm. Shannon Knight provides a review of Chinese writings on cyber warfare that reveals thoughtful discussions of foreign cyber programs, especially those of the United States. Although Chinese cyber-security experts acknowledge that the United States currently holds an advantage in this area, they predict a future shift in power and “view cyberspace as a domain holding promise for a progressive transfer of power from hegemons to emerging nations.” For the United States to maintain its edge in this field, the author calls for continued research and funding, the safeguarding of cyber technologies, and a fresh understanding of Chinese cyberspace views.
The increasing friction in the contested waters of the Pacific makes it even more imperative to try to work with China. With the U.S. Navy and the PLAN operating near each other in the region, these services face an increased likelihood of at-sea encounters, explains Captain Dale Rielage. Therefore, it’s vital to build political and operational trust. Progress was achieved on this front with the PLAN’s participation in RIMPAC 2014, which followed a year of unprecedented engagement between the U.S. and Chinese navies. “Engaging the PLAN is a worthy effort,” the author explains. “The reality is that we will encounter the PLAN across the globe. Clear discussion as to what is and is not achievable in our interactions is essential to ensure our planning and the advice we provide political leadership is realistic.”
Another avenue for engagement is in response to humankind’s common foe—natural disasters. As Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Captain Takuya Shimodaira reminds us, therein lies the foundation for a cooperative approach in the South China Sea. In the wake of devastation, arguments over who controls this or that piece of oceanic real estate fade in importance as the exigencies of humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) come to the fore. With its firmly ingrained experience in dealing with calamitous natural events, Japan is optimally positioned to take the lead in such cooperative HA/DR training and execution—a program that must include China in the fraternity of nations allied against the elements.
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief