Surf and Turf: China Ramps Up Navy to Challenge U.S. Dominance

Photo: Keith Tsuji/Getty

Bottom Line: As part of its ambitious strategy to evolve into a leading global power by 2050, China has spent considerable resources upgrading its naval capabilities. Through such undertakings, China has significantly enhanced its force projection in East Asia, where it has staked claim to disputed islands and waters as a means of expanding its sovereignty and procuring additional resources. China’s emphasis on upgrading its navy represents a worrying trend for the U.S. and its regional allies, as it threatens their territorial integrity and may ultimately enable China to challenge U.S. naval supremacy in the region.

Background: Since the mid-1990s, China has vastly upgraded its navy by undertaking across-the-board naval modernization. That includes the development of high-tech ships, advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned vehicles and enhanced surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

  • The Chinese Navy, known as the Peoples Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N), possesses more than 300 vessels, including surface combat ships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft, according to a report released by the Department of Defense in May 2017.
  • China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, into service in September 2012, and its second, Shandong, was put into the water for its final stages of construction in April 2017. Furthermore, China reportedly is constructing its third aircraft carrier and could grow its carrier fleet by an additional three in the coming years.
  • China’s submarine force consists of five nuclear attack submarines, four nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and 57 diesel attack submarines, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. The Pentagon projects that, by 2020, China’s cadre of submarines will likely grow to more than 70 boats. China’s four operational JIN-class nuclear-powered submarines represent Beijing’s first sea-based nuclear deterrent. Each is armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
  • In addition, China has invested heavily in advanced anti-ship missiles, such as the hypersonic DF-21D, referred to by some experts as the “carrier killer.” Such weapons could be used to protect Chinese interests abroad, including in the Middle East and Africa, especially as China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti this summer. China also is working on a deal with Pakistan to establish a naval base near the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in the southwest of the country.
  • During a visit to China’s naval headquarters last May, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the need for China to become a great maritime power. China’s defense ministry quoted Xi as saying that the navy should “aim for the top ranks in the world” and that “building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top-ranking global military.”

Adm. (ret) Paul Becker, former Director of Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“The Chinese Navy, known as the Peoples Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N), has been increasing its proficiency both on and under the waves by building and employing sophisticated missile-equipped ships and silent submarines with advanced weaponry and developing a growing network of sensors that extend from space to the seabed. When it comes to naval missilery, China is second to none. The PLA Air Force has also increased their overwater strike training profiles in the last several years, and is producing land-based short- and medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles which can reach as far as Guam. Functionally, PLA capabilities have improved through extensive live fire, command and control and electromagnetic spectrum training. They’ve improved seagoing skills by extended underway periods in traditional operating areas within the First Island Chain, and for the past several years out to the open seas, which includes a near-continuous presence in the Indian Ocean. The reclamation of land and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea, development of overseas port infrastructure in Southwest Asia and a base in Africa establishes a foundation for PLA-N’s sustained presence and operations in both near and distant seas.”

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Deputy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, U.S. Seventh (Asia-Pacific) Fleet

“China’s ‘recent’ naval capability upgrade is embedded in, and a part of, an overall strategy to improve PLA readiness and capability. To become a great power, China assessed its economic, diplomatic-influence and security posture. In particular, looking northeast, east and south, China concluded it was vulnerable, contained by the U.S. and its allies. Further, it was least capable in the maritime domain. A key element of their series of five-year plans was building the capability and force structure to defend key interests and be able to influence or control events within the First Island Chain – an area roughly defined by Japan’s islands, the Philippine Islands, the South China Sea, Malaysia and Indonesia.”

Issue: China has used its enhanced naval capabilities to project maritime power in East Asia at the expense of U.S. strategic interests and the territorial integrity of U.S. regional allies. Through its naval might, China has laid claim to various disputed outposts in the South and East China Seas and threatens the freedom of navigation in these contested waterways.

  • Beijing and its neighbors have staked sovereign and economic claims over various outposts in the East and South China Seas, sparking ongoing disputes. In the South China Sea, the Scarborough Reef is contested by China, the Philippines and Taiwan. The Luconia Shoals are disputed by China, Taiwan and Malaysia. Reed Bank is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. The Paracel Islands are contested by China and Vietnam. Parts of the Spratly Islands are claimed and occupied by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. In the East China Sea, China and Japan have an ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense report released in May cited the controversy over China’s “nine-dash line,” which Beijing claims demarcates its territories in the East and South China Seas. “China has depicted its territorial claims in the South China Sea with a nine-dash line that encompasses most of the waters in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon reported. “China remains ambiguous about the precise coordinates, meaning, or legal basis of the nine-dash line. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all contest aspects of China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.”
  • China has also built artificial islands in the South China Sea, particularly within the contested Spratly Islands. The U.S. has criticized China’s buildup of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement through the South China Sea, an important trade route. By deploying its navy throughout the region, China has disrupted the freedom of navigation in these areas.

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“China’s asymmetric, anti-access area-denial approach is specifically designed to inhibit our ability to support allies and partners in the region. For example, it is becoming more and more hazardous to operate on and even above the sea in the Western Pacific. Advanced anti-satellite, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and anti-ship cruise missiles are particularly concerning. We have not been attacked in recent years by a state-of-the-art cruise missile, and it is a very difficult threat to counter – you can’t wish it away.  In particular, China is determined to build capabilities that will first develop and then sustain their freedom of action inside the first island chain, including the South China and East China Seas.”

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Deputy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, U.S. Seventh (Asia-Pacific) Fleet

“China’s strategic interests are regional, vital-interest defense and influencing and controlling events and areas within the First Island Chain. Further, China is developing and deploying the capability to protect the ‘lines of communication’ to assure global access to energy. For example, China is undertaking ‘piracy’ deployments to the Gulf of Aden and increased operations in the Indian Ocean.”

Response: The U.S. government has worked to craft a strategy in response to China’s rapidly evolving naval capabilities. By enhancing its own naval capabilities, augmenting regional force posture, reaffirming commitments to allies, and ensuring the freedom of navigation, the U.S. Navy has bolstered its unrivaled naval supremacy in East Asia.

  • The U.S. Navy has initiated expansive measures to further improve capabilities, prioritizing the readiness of its service members, the incorporation of new technology and equipment, and cooperation with partners and allies.
  • In the Pacific, the U.S. Navy plans to augment its force posture by increasing its share of forward-deployed ships from approximately 54 to around 67 by 2020.
  • The U.S. has cooperated with allies to offset China’s expanding regional presence. For example, a May 2016 deal between the U.S. and the Philippines permitted the U.S. to deploy conventional forces at five bases in the Philippines for the first time in decades.
  • The U.S. has also sailed warships through the South China Sea to promote the freedom of navigation in contested waters. In October, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near the Paracel Islands, emitting a response from the Chinese Defense Ministry, which called the act a “provocation.” While these flare-ups carry the potential for larger conflict, the U.S. undertakes such measures to signal its commitment to preserving critical freedoms of navigation as China expands its military presence in the South China Sea.

Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

“The U.S. must continue to operate in strong support of freedom of navigation by conducting maritime and aviation patrols over Chinese-claimed international waters; strengthen partnerships and alliances with key nations in the region — Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and others; build a much stronger partnership with India, an emerging superpower and potential ally; work on the technological and tactical counters to Chinese programs; and — conversely — work on creating a modus vivendi with China. We are not ‘destined for war,’ but we could certainly stumble into one if we are not careful. We need a mix of confrontation and cooperation, and an effective diplomatic strategy to lay aside a capable military in the region. We are a Pacific nation in every way, and need to continue our engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Anticipation: China’s commitment to boosting its naval capacity represents a growing challenge to U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Although the U.S. government has worked to formulate a strategy to ensure that its Navy maintains its competitive advantage on the high seas, China’s rapidly evolving naval capabilities present an alarming cause for concern.

Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

“China is waking up to the global maritime strategy of Alfred Thayer Mahan, an influential U.S. naval officer and historian, and will challenge the U.S. seriously on global waterways as the century unfolds.”

Bennett Seftel is director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.

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