29 August 2012

China’s Real Blue Water Navy

Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, China’s Real Blue Water Navy,” The Diplomat, 30 August 2012.

China’s navy is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America the way the Soviet Union once did, if not worse. This despite Peter Navarro and Greg Autry’s over-the-top polemic, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action, in which they claim that “[T]he People’s Republic is moving forward at Manhattan Project speed to develop a blue water navy capable of challenging the U.S. Navy.”

Such statements lack basis in fact and present an ideal strategic teaching moment to remind analysts and policymakers that Beijing’s evolving naval structure and operations yet again show that China is not working off a traditional European, Soviet, or American naval development playbook. Even its most nationalistic and ambitious strategists and decision-makers do not seek what they would term a “global Far Oceans blue-water type” (远洋进攻性) navy any time soon. Yet it is also misleading to argue, as one scholar recently did in The National Interest, that “All but the most hawkish hawks agree that the Chinese military will not pose a threat to the United States for decades.” This is off the mark from the other direction—albeit in a considerably more subtle and thoughtful way. As a rare People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation visited Washington recently for a series of official meetings, it is important to understand where China’s military is headed and why—particularly at sea, where U.S. and Chinese military platforms encounter each other most frequently.

Here is the critical point that both writings miss entirely—China’s military, and navy, are not high-end or low-end across the board. Rather, in addition to domestic security/homeland defense, they have two major layers:

1.      China has already developed, and continues to develop rapidly, potent high-end navy and “anti-Navy capabilities. Like their other military counterparts, they are focused almost entirely on contested areas close to home.

2.      It is also developing low-end capabilities. They are relevant primarily for low-intensity peacetime missions in areas further afield.

These two very different dynamics should not be conflated. …