After years of concern on the part of the US and its regional allies, is China upping its game to develop a powerful new blue-water navy? On December 27 Chinese leader Hu Jintao told a meeting of delegates to a Communist Party meeting of the People's Liberation Army Navy that "The navy force should be strengthened and modernized," and, further, the navy should be prepared "at any time for military struggle."
Two days later, Beijing issued a white paper describing its naval plans that was intended in effect for three audiences. It sought to dissuade Taiwan from breaking its "One China" commitments, while also seeking to calm regional fears of a greater military presence in the neighborhood. It was also aimed at convincing Washington that it was not pursuing an arms race, while at the same time demonstrating that it was developing the capabilities to deter U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait.
None of this information should come as a surprise, as part of China's policy on all of these fronts is to pursue a more transparent military, although many suspect that there is much more undeclared spending than accounted for in the report. Although China has been modernizing its navy for several years and its propaganda machine alternately blows hot and cold on Taiwan across the strait, its current fleet remains hampered by obsolete units.
Now, however, it is upgrading its surface fleet by bringing Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers into service while also pursuing two new guided missile destroyer classes. For its underwater fleet, China is working with Russia to upgrade its existing diesel-powered submarines, while progress on the construction of its domestically designed units has progressed slowly. Its pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers is also progressing slowly, both due to technical difficulties and to a lack of strategic imperative behind the projects.
In a white paper released two days after the December 27 meeting, Beijing's plans for its navy were not altered significantly. However, the importance of gaining the ability to project force away from its coastal areas was given more prominence this time around.
China has released white papers on its defense plans sporadically for the past eight years, in part to calm nerves about the military aspects of its rise in power. The country’s reliance on foreign energy means that it is more important for its navy to be able to protect sea lines of communication and keep open the "choke points" relevant to its trade.
Other goals for its navy include the ability to control areas of uncertain sovereignty (the Spratly Islands), protection of the exclusive economic zones it claims (most significantly in the East China Sea), and the development of a fleet capable of overpowering any other Asiatic country (with the exception of Japan and India, which it will attempt to counter-balance, rather than challenge directly).
Still, the ability to retake Taiwan by force if necessary remains the main focus of China's navy. A fact not mentioned in the white paper is that much of China's plans for its navy seem to include developing the ability to deter the United States from protecting Taiwan in such a conflict, as the US famously did in 1996 when China was hurling missiles off the island’s northern tip. At the height of the missile crisis, the Clinton Administration sent the US 7th Fleet down the strait between the two antagonists. To this end, China does not appear to be pursuing a direct arms race with the United States, which it would have little hope of winning. Rather, Beijing's development of diesel- and nuclear-powered submarines appears to be an attempt to gain the ability to form a submarine blockade of Taiwan. This would put pressure on Taipei while possibly avoiding the potential consequences of a full-scale invasion, namely a U.S. counter-attack.
Much of the reaction to the white paper focused on China's 15 percent increase in defense spending. In 2006, China claims to have spent US$36 billion on its military; although the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believes the actual figure may be two to three times that amount. Beijing defended this increase by noting that its military spending only accounted for 1.4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P.) in 2006, while the United States spent 6.2 percent of its G.D.P. on military expenditures.
China at times seems at pains to ensure its neighbors that its rise does not constitute a threat to the region, and it has similarly sought to dissuade Washington from believing it is pursuing an arms race. Many interests in Washington are quick to dismiss such notions, as China's modernization of its military is often cited as a strategic rational to increase military spending on new technologies and large-scale defense projects.
Nevertheless, military cooperation improved incrementally between China and the United States in 2006. A Pentagon report on China, released in May 2006, described China's military modernization in many of the same terms as Beijing's latest white paper, although it repeats the argument that "China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States." Chinese and U.S. forces staged their first joint search-and-rescue maneuvers in the Pacific and South China Sea in 2006, and Washington downplayed an unexpected surfacing of a Chinese submarine near a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Officials in Beijing and Washington were also both quick to point out the overlapping security concerns that the world's largest oil importers share. To this end, China can be expected to continue pursuing measures to dissuade U.S. fears of a coming arms race, while still building a force capable of deterring the United States from interfering in an attack on Taiwan. Washington can be expected to react in turn, cooperating on some aspects of mutual interest, while continuing to cite China's military build up as a reason to upgrade its systems.
Similarly, China would like to assuage the fears that its military modernization might raise in India and Japan. After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's election in 2006, China quickly reversed its position and accepted a state visit from the new Japanese prime minister. Beijing also used high-level meetings with New Delhi to highlight the burgeoning economic ties between their countries and to downplay their continuing border dispute.
However, while Beijing is striving to show that it is a "responsible stakeholder" to Washington, and that its neighbors have nothing to fear from China's rise, it continues to support governments that Washington considers "rogue regimes," and its policy of isolating Taiwan diplomatically goes on unabated. Therefore, while it participated in more U.N. peacekeeping missions in 2006, it also moved closer to Iran and continued to support Sudan.
As long as this dual-track policy persists, Washington, and China's regional rivals, will continue to watch Beijing's military modernization with caution. In fact, two days after the white paper was released, Japan announced that it had staged a joint navy exercise with the United States in the East China Sea the previous month based on the assumption that China had invaded the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
While there is little new in China's white paper, the emphasis given to the navy, as well as Hu's speech before its release, is worth noting. China believes that it will need to develop a blue water navy to protect its economic rise. This will allow it to protect sea lines of communication for the vast natural resources that it requires in order to ensure that its economy continues to grow at its current level. In some ways, this goal should bring Washington and Beijing closer. Nevertheless, other factors will continue to put pressure on their relationship.
The main obstacle is Taiwan, but neither party seems inclined to alter the status quo in the Strait. Also, China's rise in Asia will challenge Washington's hegemony there. As such, it can be expected that the competing goals will continue to be highlighted in Beijing and Washington, while their militaries also inch toward closer relations by focusing on mutual security concerns.
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