Just a couple of decades ago the naval forces of China (People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN) was a weakling, barely capable of defending the Chinese Coast. Hong-Kong, a British station until 1997, was almost considered secure by naval if not military means even with just a few British warships at the station. Since then the PLAN has received much investment in materiel and research. This makes much sense for the Chinese government which in recent years has presided over a growth of the country’s military and economic potential to new levels, including an expansion in global and regional trade interests. China’s main oil supply is maritime and it is hardly surprising that this resource is of key import to the burgeoning Chinese industry. Chinese political influence has been present in Africa and the Middle East since the Cold War but now it is becoming more concentrated and noticeable.
Without wishing to dwell on the importance of Seapower, it is safe to state that the PLAN has gone from strength to strength along with this general “rise of China.” Its more recent adventures include missile tests in the 1990s near Taiwan, the infamous “surprise arrival” of a Chinese submarine next to USS Kitty Hawk and the shooting down of a satellite in 2007. China has also acquired new vessels and is currently producing a large submarine fleet. Its Type 022 Fast attack craft, of which it has over fifty, are a potentially serious problem for the US fleet operating in the Pacific along with other regional armed forces including the Royal Australian Navy. The precise reasons for this growing capability aren’t always clear though we may presume that the oil security issue is a major factor.
China’s growing political influence throughout the world and the region are also worth discussion. Beijing has rarely hidden its agenda for the annexation of Taiwan, an island state which neither China nor the US consider independent due to its reliance on US arms and industry. So great is the American investiture of systems there that China still has not the capability for an easy invasion and occupation. Amphibious warfare, anti-air and anti-ship systems are all being expanded on by the PLAN, not just their submarine fleet and China is expected to have global force projection capability in the next five years due to its research and current construction of aircraft carrier parts.
China’s recent and numerous naval project production has caused alarm amongst many in the United States who believe that it is a direct challenge to US interests and security and also to those of her allies in the Pacific; most assuredly Taiwan but also Japan and South Korea which s remains technically at war with China’s client state: the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea.
The type of systems being built by the PLAN, along with aggressive talk from Navy officers reinforces this fear. The Type 022 Fast attack craft is a sort of stealth boat, designed to prey upon enemy ships like a cheetah pursuing antelope. The huge submarine fleet currently deployed and growing is considered a major threat also to both US surface and sub-surface vessels. According to the Chinese journal Modern Navy, the attack submarine is the most effective ASW platform, and therefore there seems to be a clear statement in China’s aims to out-produce the US in this system type. US dominance at sea, both global and maritime, is fairly assured however. The experience and doctrine of the US Navy is something which the PLAN cannot reproduce in a factory and in terms of materiel they have not yet obtained any kind of dominance to challenge the United States internationally.
However, the Beijing government has always claimed that theirs is a peaceful rise and that they are committed to world order. The PLAN have assisted in international anti-piracy efforts and was also present at the recent Haitian earthquake relief. In its own region, China has increasingly interacted with what are seen in Washington as the US’s traditional security partners, and it seems to have a desire to either challenge the American position or slot neatly into the existing order without fuss. It depends largely on who one asks; again PLA officers seem much more bellicose from their political masters who still voice the “peaceful rise of China” mantra. The result is a confusing view for observers in the West.
Much has been said that China will take over the role of the US as a major security partner in the region but this seems doubtful. Most states still know what side their bread is buttered and the US retains predominance in the area. In the event of conflict it remains highly contested as to how long this status would remain but for the time being, as long as peace reigns in the eastern seas, China’s rise seems to be accommodated by the existing regional security framework and has not — yet — unbalanced it. We may see China develop an increased regional maritime capability but in terms of global Seapower it is likely that it will remain in, what Seapower strategist Geoffrey Till calls, the second band of naval powers for some time to come.