ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
China's burgeoning naval power
, April 23, 2005
The effectiveness of sea power is not lost on national security policy-makers in Beijing, writes Jeffry Babb.China has a long maritime history and its use of sea power to influence outcomes in foreign affairs is well developed. For this reason, it is important for China's neighbours to take notice of developments in Chinese sea power.
China for many centuries led the world in ship construction, navigational science and oceanography. The most famous Chinese sailor was Admiral Zheng He, who in the early 15th century led four voyages to the Middle East and Africa. His large fleets demonstrated remarkable standards of Chinese shipbuilding, voyage management and navigational expertise.
At the time, the Portuguese - leading the European push to open the routes from Europe to the East - were just feeling their way down the west coat of Africa in 50-ton caravels, while Zheng He led hundreds of ships, many displacing over 400 tons, half way around the world.Policy
The effectiveness of sea power is not lost on national security policy-makers in Beijing. They view naval power as a useful instrument of state policy, especially in defending China's coasts and rich economic areas, and securing the wealth of the ocean, as did their imperial predecessors.
Navies also have an important symbolic role. A frequent naval mission is to demonstrate "naval presence," with the use of warships to emphasise national interest in distant regions.
Beijing has not hesitated to use naval force in the pursuit of national security goals and sovereignty issues. These issues are volatile and naval power is useful to emphasise Beijing's interests - and sovereignty issues have a strong maritime focus. Taiwan is prime among these sovereignty issues, but Beijing is also involved in at least six of East Asia's more than two dozen maritime territorial disputes.
Says Dr Bernard Cole, professor of international history at the National War College in Washington, DC: "China is carrying out a maritime strategy designed to achieve near-term national security objectives and longer-term regional maritime dominance through both combatant and merchant fleets. In the near term, Beijing is building a navy capable of decisively influencing the operational aspects of the Taiwan and South China Sea situations, should diplomacy and other instruments of statecraft fail."
Beijing is employing both local shipyards and purchases of naval equipment to develop its navy. Since the late 1990s, the quantity and quality of output from China's commercial and naval shipyards have risen sharply.
The country is the world's third largest commercial shipbuilder and has set its sights on overtaking Japan and South Korea within the next decade. It also has the world's largest naval shipbuilding program and has eight different types of nuclear and conventional submarines, destroyers and frigates in production or under development.
The production and development of support vessels, such as transport craft and landing ships, are also being stepped up. In addition, the Chinese Navy has made major purchases of Russian submarines and destroyers in the past few years, including orders from Russia for a dozen Kilo-class conventional submarines.
China is also developing new submarines and guided missile destroyers, with the new Lanzhou-class guided missile destroyer said to be comparable to the early models of the US Aegis-class cruiser. China is also likely to acquire new generation nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines.
"Despite these advances," says Tai Ming Cheung, research fellow at the Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego, "the Chinese shipbuilding industry still has a long way to go to reach the technological and manufacturing levels of its international rivals."
Any navy must deter aggression and assert sovereignty in situations that fall short of war - for example, China's anti-secession law's famous "non-peaceful" means to be used against Taiwan.
Similarly, a Chinese submarine recently entered Japanese waters, a deliberate provocation that was apparently meant to assess Japan's anti-submarine warfare capabilities and send a not-too-subtle warning to Japan that it is vulnerable to naval action. Also, in the developing contest for the gas and oil riches of the South China Sea, naval power is paramount.
Australia has important issues to confront with regard to China's naval power. As a trading nation, Australia has vital interests in keeping open the sea lines of communication between itself and its trading partners and allies.
If Australian foreign-policy planners' worst fears are realised and Australia becomes involved in a China vs US showdown, the navy is likely to be involved. As the Chinese fully appreciate, naval power is about more than winning wars - it is about demonstrating resolve and ability to defend one's vital interests.