MacDonald: China’s Nascent Blue-Water Navy: A Cause for Concern?

Photo courtesy of ping.shakl

There are growing concerns that the ongoing transformation of China’s navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – from modest coastal defence to that of a nascent blue-water force is motivated by and facilitating an eventual revisionist challenge at sea against the United States and her allies, evidenced by Beijing increasingly ‘assertive’ behaviour in the East and South China Seas.

Assessments have usually portrayed the PLAN as primarily focused on constructing a ‘fortress fleet’ able to operate in regional waters under the protection from shore-based weapons in support of China’s Anti-Access and Areas Denial (A2/AD) strategy: erode military supremacy, specifically sea control, of the United States in East Asia via the building of a missile-centric force of land and sea based assets capable of targeting American units throughout the region. China, as a result, is now usually classified as a limited blue-water navy able to project power in its region but not in those adjacent to or in faraway seas. Such a categorization, however, will be revised within the next decade as the PLAN acquires a suite of new platforms specifically designed to project power away from their home region. The domestic construction of aircraft carriers (based on their experience in refurbishing and employing their current, and only, carrier the Liaoning,) and large, guided-missile surface combatants indicate China’s determination to become a major naval power comprised, in part, of aircraft carrier battlegroups increasingly operating abroad as per the PLAN’s new Open Seas Protection mandate.

Despite its current expeditionary naval operations as small-scale, non-confrontational, lawful and in many cases in direct support of international security missions, some observers predict China’s emerging blue-water navy, once full operational, will adopt a more confrontational posture globally, including in the home regions of other powers such as India and the United States, forcing these states to commit greater focus and efforts locally vice employing their naval power abroad. For example, the sailing of a Chinese task group in and around the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska in 2015 may be the first of such deployments testing the United States’ commitment to global maritime rules, specifically Freedom of Navigation for foreign military vessels and aircraft, which is regularly exercised by the United States Navy in East Asia. A China which has the ability and interest in

Such premonitions are not entirely founded, but before assessing China as an inevitable naval menace, building her strength before embarking on an overt and uncompromising revisionist turn at sea, three points must be taken into consideration.

First, notwithstanding their impressive capability developments, China’s naval power must not be overestimated, especially in comparison to the United States Navy. There remain major technical, operational and strategic deficiencies limiting China’s ability to project power including: anti-submarine warfare capabilities; joint operations with other Chinese services; power plant designs; knowledge of fleet maintenance, including refit cycles; and lack of warfare and task group operations experience. The PLAN’s focus will largely remain within Asia for the foreseeable future, eroding American and allied military supremacy but unlikely to replace it with their own realm of military dominance given the lack of major power and regional allies.

Second, reducing the totality of China’s naval developments and missions to one primary and exclusive purpose – eroding American global sea power -may obstruct studying and understanding a broader range of interests and rationales at play as well as unnecessarily exacerbate tensions if Washington views China’s naval strategy as solely aimed towards them. Such a fixation neglects the plethora of legitimate maritime interests China possesses; instances of China’s lawful employment of sea power regardless of the strategic apprehensions it generates; exploring areas of joint interest and cooperation; and acknowledging the public security benefits the PLAN provides including anti-piracy patrols, evacuating civilians from conflict zones and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Finally, the ‘revisionist’ label placed on China is too vague to capture the most realistic challenges the West faces. A more exact and accurate description of China currently is that of an exceptionalist power which by and large operates within the international order but when advantageous deviates from and openly violates global rules and processes. This is evident in their dogged determination to have their claims solidified via military power in the South China Sea despite their illegality and destabilizing effects on the region; but this is not the same as trying to upend the global maritime order writ large. As China, furthermore, continues to become a major maritime and naval power, they may become somewhat supportive of Freedom of Navigation for military vessels and aircraft as the rights and freedoms of the PLAN’s increasing presence abroad are protected. Any such shift in views on this matter, however, will most likely not halt Beijing’s effort to progress military capabilities and tactics to erode American military power in East Asia, but it may arrest any future proclivities to try to evict them from the region.  This issue, therefore, may join the litany of others, such as binding climate agreements and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Beijing opposed as hostile to their rise but has overtime come to embrace as critical to their strategic interests as a major power.

The West must avoid the temptation to decide a priori that China’s growing naval power is inevitably and inextricably enabling and moving down a path of threatening revisionism, even while being mindful uncertainty remains of China’s current and future intents and action at sea. The West, including Canada, should be holding China to account for their illegal claims and actions in the East and South China Sea, but this is the easy part. The harder part will be for the West to be unwavering in its promotion of the rules underpinning the global maritime order despite the strategic changes in the distribution of power they facilitate, including China’s emergence as a major naval power.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada who is a regular contributor to the CDA Institute as well as the East Asia Forum and Frontline Defence.  Specializing in geopolitical developments in the Arctic and East Asia, his current foci are analyzing the study of China’s rise, military developments in the Arctic and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar.

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