01 December 2007

Can China Become a Maritime Power?

Andrew S. Erickson, “Can China Become a Maritime Power?” in Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, eds., Asia Looks Seaward: Power and Maritime Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), 70-110.

Despite possessing a coastline some 7,830 nautical miles long and some 3,400 offshore islands, China has pursued maritime development in an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty. The nation has long been a continental power with a feeble navy, but recent assessments suggest that this historic pattern is changing. China appears increasingly determined to create a modern navy. But–while the possibility cannot be excluded outright–it seems that China is not developing long-range power-projection capabilities. Rather, Beijing seems to be constructing a navy geared to achieving asymmetric sea-denial capabilities on its immediate periphery in order to defend its growing maritime interests, and in particular to resolve the volatile Taiwan issue. Nevertheless, its combat potential should not be underestimated.

At least for now, Beijing does not seem intent on fielding carrier battle groups. Therefore, the PLAN is developing very differently from most other large navies, and from the U.S. Navy in particular. Chinese naval strategists seem to embrace their own universal logic of sea power, with both Mahanian and Marxist undercurrents. Despite these foreign influences, however, they insist that China has not, and will not, replicate the martial patterns of the West. Yet, exceptionalism aside, Chinese naval development today seems to be constrained less by ideology than by capabilities. A concerted effort to improve these capabilities is clearly underway and enjoys the sustained support of China’s leadership. More relevant questions are, therefore: What kind of force structure will allow China to execute its strategies effectively, thereby achieving its political objectives? How feasible are China’s plans for force-structure development, and how long will it take to fulfill such plans? A close examination of these and other developments will furnish insights into how strategic thought influences Chinese maritime strategy. Particularly uncertain is the extent to which China will seek to project power beyond its shores. Will China seek ‘‘command of the sea’’? If so, what will be the essence and implications of ‘‘command of the sea with Chinese characteristics’’? In short, can China become a true maritime power?

This chapter, which selectively surveys aspects of China’s naval development in order to elucidate the trajectory of its growing sea power, will proceed in seven steps. A section on latest developments and assessments will survey China’s 2006 Defense White Paper Summary and the 2006 U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military modernization. The next section, on force structure, will examine China’s military budget; submarine force; MIW (mine-warfare) capabilities; surface ships; amphibious forces; naval air force; command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities; and deck aviation ambitions. Subsequent sections will consider China’s base infrastructure, training, and doctrine. Inferences about China’s naval modernization plan will then be offered, followed by implications for regional naval relations and an overall assessment. … …