Dreams of a Global China
Once considered a dilapidated fleet wielding outdated ships, unable to advance the People’s Republic of China’s vast foreign policy goals, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – the naval branch of the Chinese military – may have become the proverbial “big stick” that China requires to both assert itself globally and dominate regional affairs. Since the ascension of Xi Jinping to power in 2013, the Chinese navy has experienced a period of intense expansion. Quantitatively, it is superior to the United States Navy, the pre-eminent military power in the region since the end of the Second World War, with 714 vessels to America’s 415. New, more advanced warships continue to be produced by China’s major shipbuilding centers, such as Shanghai and Dalian. In 2018, China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, and has been adding to its number of cruisers, frigates, submarines, naval aircraft and long-range missiles. This could have important implications for not only the East Asian power dynamic, but also in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
A rising power’s aspiration to build a powerful navy has significant historical precedent; there are numerous parallels between China’s efforts and the Anglo-German naval arms race which preceded World War I. Starting in 1897, the Reichstag, the German parliament, passed a series of Naval Laws, allowing for the continuous building and replacing of battleships and battlecruisers, then considered the pinnacle of imperial strength. The plan, spearheaded by the ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, would see the German Navy grow to a size comparable to the dominant global maritime force: the British Royal Navy. Though German military planners knew they would be unable to build a navy stronger than Britain’s, it was believed that by making military engagement too costly for the British, the Germans could, in effect, cripple their ability to operate freely. The Germans hoped that this would allow Germany to carry out its own colonial aspirations free of British interference, and give it the prestige of a first rate power. However, the expansion of the German navy’s capacity incentivized Britain to increase its own battleship construction, following its policy to maintain a navy that was as powerful as the next two strongest navies in the world. In addition, the English entered into the Triple Entente alliance with the French and Russians to counter German attempts at hegemony on the continent. The arms race contributed to greater tensions that would eventually spill over into the First World War.
China has displayed similar motives in the expansion of its navy. The PRC has long attempted to become the dominant power in the South China Sea via a variety of measures. For instance, its official, but widely criticized “Nine-Dash Line” policy claims almost the entire region as its own sovereign waters, despite being debunked as false by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration. Strategically, China’s push is logical given the region’s significant economic value; in addition to fishing, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the South China Sea contains up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. China’s ambitions are not limited to the South China Sea however. Just last year, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti; this development comes at a time when China is pouring billions of dollars into African development.
An examination of the PLAN’s expansion shows China’s intent to dominate the South China Sea. Just as the German Empire’s naval expansion was meant to challenge the primacy of the British Empire’s navy, China’s expansion seeks to counter the dominant force in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy.
There remains a major difference between the respective situations. Germany and Britain’s answers to each other’s naval advancements involved the construction of the same type of warships - dreadnought-type battleships and battlecruisers. Naval theory at the time supported decisive duels between large fleets of battleships. As such, the Anglo-German arms race primarily revolved around the relative quantity, firepower, and tonnage of relatively similar ships.
However, China’s answer to American naval strength in the South China Sea is structured on a strategy they refer to as “counter-intervention.”Rather than build a comparable number of warships as large and powerful as the U.S. Navy’s, the Chinese Navy is investing in ships and missiles specifically meant to neutralize America’s advantages. For example, in response to the U.S. Navy’s large number of colossal, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the Chinese have tested and deployed the DF-21D and DF-26 missiles, known as “carrier killers.” Furthermore, in response to America’s large number of advanced submarines, the PLAN has been expanding its fleet of anti-submarine vessels, such as frigates and corvettes. These developments point to an effort to shift power dynamics in naval combat in the South China Sea, as the Germans attempted in the 1900’s; just as the Germans never attempted to build a fleet stronger than Britain’s, the Chinese are putting their main focus into ships that act as counters to America’s advantage, rather than match the U.S. Navy ship-for-ship.
Simultaneously, China’s navy is being geared towards projecting its power on a global scale. Significantly, in April China launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A. Though China had previously possessed a former Soviet aircraft carrier and extensively modified the vessel, its ability to launch a new carrier from its own ports suggests greater mastery over naval machinery – a potentially dangerous development for the United States. Also of great importance are China’s new Type 055 cruisers and Type 052D destroyers. These advanced, versatile warships are central to the PLAN’s objective to build at least four powerful “carrier strike groups”which will be used to protect Chinese assets and spread its influence worldwide. This is coupled with the March 2018 reform of the Chinese Coast Guard, which integrated it into the Chinese military. This will allow for the Coast Guard to cooperate with the PLAN in times of conflict as well as police its disputed claims in the South China Sea, while also giving the Chinese Navy more freedom to act away from China. This development illustrates China’s aspirations to have a “blue-water navy,” a phrase indicating that a fleet can operate on a global scale.
Some experts, however, believe that even with its expansion, the PLAN is far from a match for the U.S. Navy. According to an article from the Brookings Institution, the U.S. Navy maintains a comfortable lead over China in terms of total tonnage of warships, and, on average, its warships tend to be much larger than China’s.
The dangers of anSino-American arms race are evident through the experience of Germany and Great Britain. Should this happen, the resulting polarized, hostile atmosphere could very much become a powder keg waiting for a spark to ignite it, as Europe was in 1914. America’s future challenge is to recognize China’s increasing global presence and cooperate peacefully, while neither compromising its ability to operate freely nor resorting to a dangerous buildup of arms, lest the two countries begin to see themselves as future combatants.