14 June 2012

Are China’s Near Seas “Anti-Navy” Capabilities Aimed Directly at the United States?

Andrew S. Erickson, Are China’s Near Seas ‘Anti-Navy’ Capabilities Aimed Directly at the United States? Information Dissemination, 14 June 2012.

Yes, but it’s more complicated than that. In the military realm, Washington and Beijing face a situation that is complex both in concept and in policy implications. In contrast to its mostly-settled land borders, China’s island and maritime zone claims in the “Near Seas” remain mostly unresolved.

To further its still-contested claims in these “Three Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas), China is developing increasingly-sophisticated capabilities to hold at risk forces of the U.S. and its allies and friends in that region and its immediate approaches. While some of these anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)—or, from Beijing’s perspective, “counter-intervention”—capabilities are naval in nature, land-based missiles  controlled by the Second Artillery Force and land-based aircraft  constitute many of the most potent and potentially effective ones. Thus, merely comparing the two nations’ navies as a whole, whatever allowances are made for the fact that the globally-distributed and -tasked U.S. Navy could not divert the majority of its platforms to the Near Seas even in wartime, fails to capture the true extent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s emerging challenge to the U.S. Navy. For this reason, some U.S. government analysts refer to China’s A2/AD forces as an “Anti-Navy .”

Chinese policymakers by no means desire war with the U.S., which would be ruinous to both sides, as well as to the region more generally; and would completely derail China’s domestic development, which remains a priority of China’s leadership second only to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. Rather, their goal is to deter U.S. forces from intervening in regional disputes in which Beijing is involved in the first place. For instance, the cross-Strait military balance has shifted dramatically over the past decade. While the U.S. military retains great capabilities vis-à-vis mainland China, Taiwan has no major areas of superiority left with which to resist coercion—save for the substantial natural defenses that have been conferred on it by geography and which could be enhanced significantly should Taipei pursue a “Porcupine Strategy ” more robustly. Likewise, in all major bilateral scenarios, China enjoys substantial military advantages over each of its neighbors in the South China Sea. Moreover, Chinese policymakers believe that their nation has far stronger, more enduring interests in the Near Seas than does the U.S. So it’s readily apparent why Chinese military planners view developing credible capacity to deter American military intervention as essential to realizing their major strategic objectives, and are optimistic about their long-term prospects in this regard.

Despite these undeniable challenges, however, the U.S. retains significant advantages that are likely to persist in many respects, even as the world changes significantly in coming years. Moreover, beyond the Near Seas, Sino-American strategic dynamics are very different. With no claims to inflame Chinese sensitivities, and with sea lanes on which both nations rely for their economic lifeblood but which are threatened by non-state actors such as Somali pirates, the “Far Seas” of the Indian Ocean and beyond offer a zone of potential cooperation for the U.S., China, and a host of other nations that can play a constructive role in sustaining and defending the global system. …