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On Point

China's Navy Gets Bigger, but Why?


by Austin Bay
December 28, 2010

Conditions -- and human intentions -- can change quickly, but creating capabilities takes time.

This applies in virtually every realm of human endeavor. The global recession has required painful economic adjustment that in the case of a nation like Greece may take decades to repair. An epidemic can strike, but a vaccine or cure may take years to develop.

 It takes years to develop military capabilities, to include weapons technology and training people to use them. In the mid-1930s, Winston Churchill saw Germany expanding its military capabilities. Churchill warned that Adolf Hitler intended to start another European war, but he was ignored. All too often, one man's prescience is another man's paranoid fantasy. Great Britain entered World War II with a small air force, despite the documented expansion of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe. The British just managed to win the Battle of Britain, but it was a near thing.

Building a navy requires a particularly long lead time. The designing, financing and building of ships requires thinking in terms of at least two decades. Providing experienced commanders and trained crews takes longer.

The Chinese Navy's expansion program began in the 1990s, as China's fleet began to venture away from China's coast and develop blue water (open ocean) capabilities. Now Chinese submarines encounter U.S. Navy task forces, and Chinese warships turn up in the Indian Ocean. China may launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011. It will take years to produce carrier pilots and crew comparable to those in the Navy, but acquiring the technology is a huge step.

What does China intend to do with its carrier? The rest of Asia, from India to Japan, wants to know. For example, Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea conflict sharply with those of Vietnam and the Philippines. A carrier extends China's offensive reach in this contested sea zone.

The carrier is one piece of a complex puzzle that includes new surface ships, aircraft and missiles. This week, U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Robert Willard told a Japanese newspaper that China's Dongfeng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) had achieved "initial operational capability."

The DF-21D gives Chinese land forces a weapon that can sink a U.S. carrier at long range. This means U.S. naval forces supporting South Korea, Japan or Taiwan face higher risks as they approach the mainland, which U.S. analysts conclude is China's intention. The acronym for this strategy is A2/AD, for "anti-access/area denial," which is more diplomatic than calling it "U.S.-Japan, go away."

Chinese naval theorists discuss extending China's reach beyond "the first island chain" (roughly Japan, Taiwan and the South China Sea) to the second (a wide arc running from Singapore through Guam and then north to Japan). Some U.S. analysts conclude this translates as "U.S. Navy, go further away."

Are these new Chinese naval, air, space and land forces necessarily directed at the U.S.? The Chinese point out that India sits astride China's sea lines of communication (SLOCs) with Southwest Asia and Africa. The Chinese economic miracle requires Middle Eastern energy and African minerals. The Indian Navy could quickly cut the supply chain, unless China has a navy capable of protecting it.

A war in Asia, with Japan, the U.S. or India, even one with Taiwan, puts the Chinese economy at risk. China's leaders claim their biggest problem is creating 25 million new jobs a year. China's economy depends on global trade. Which leads to another line of analysis: China does not seek a war, but it wants to guarantee its own maritime trade security and does not want to rely on the U.S. Navy to protect it. Hence, the increase in capabilities.

But if and when conditions change? The Japanese note that Japan is the fulcrum for both Chinese island lines. Theoretical chatter is one thing, but the emerging Chinese capabilities are beyond dispute. The Japanese believe they need capabilities. Tokyo recently announced it will more fully integrate its military forces with American forces and will develop mobile forces capable of defending its southern islands. 

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