Sinophobia on the High Seas

China’s mounting military prowess continues to worry American analysts. Commander James Kraska fears that China is set for naval hegemony.

USS Paul F. Foster visits Qingdao, China, November 24, 2002
USS Paul F. Foster visits Qingdao, China, November 24, 2002 (US Navy/Shawn Burns)

China’s growing military power continues to be a cause for concern with American military analysts, especially with regards to its apparently expanding naval ambitions.

Commander James Kraska of the United States Naval War College previously predicated a Sino-American naval conflict by 2015. In a more recent contribution, entitled “China Set for Naval Hegemony,” Kraska points to aggressive Chinese activity in the South China Sea, including the seizing of Vietnamese fishing boats, the steaming of a flotilla near Okinawa, Japan and an incident on April 13 when a Chinese destroyer aimed its missiles at a Japanese patrol plane. China even came to confrontation with American forces in the same region, in March 2009, when it harassed the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable. “China has made uncanny progress on its dogged trek to transition from an obsolete 1950s-style coastal defense force to a balanced blue water fleet,” writes Kraska.

In the face of budget cuts on the part of the American Navy, Kraska predicts two outcomes.

The first is that China will indeed achieve its goal of becoming the Asian hegemonic power, dominant not only on land, but in the Western Pacific. The second possibility is that other nations — foremost among them Japan and India — but also including virtually every other nation in the region from Russia to Vietnam, will begin to think more overtly about collective measures and how they can balance the growing power of Beijing.

There are several flawed premises to Kraska’s argument. First, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed just a few days ago, the United States does not intend to short on its armed forces. He questioned the wisdom of maintaining America’s conventional naval forces but argued for a better navy, not a smaller one.

Second, one wonders whether China indeed has the ambition to become Asia’s twenty-first century hegemon. What does seem certain is that it seeks no quarrel with the United States. The frustrating factor in Sino-American relations today is not China, but the United States. Although it supposedly pursues a policy of “strategic reassurance,” the Obama Administration was still urged in March by the Financial Times to be consistent toward China and strive for partnership with in areas of common interest.

Lastly, it’s important not to overstate China’s naval potential. As James argued in February,

We may see China develop an increased regional maritime capability but in terms of global seapower it is likely that it will remain in […] the second band of naval powers for some time to come.

It is not without reason that Edward Wong reported in April that China is seeking “to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific,” areas in which the US Navy has traditionally been supreme. Of course, as China’s economic relations around the world grow stronger, so will its attempts to safeguard these with military force. This is not so much a concentrated effort to challenge American power however; it is an effort to protect Chinese interests overseas.