Don’t Worry Too Much About China’s Navy

China is building up its fleet, but it is not building the infrastructure needed to support a global naval presence.

As China continues to expand and modernize its navy amid the specter of an Asian naval race developing, Greg Grant wonders at DefenseTech what’s behind it all. “China is clearly intent on becoming a real maritime power; but is that a strategic choice made out of necessity or out of a desire to challenge other nations on the high seas.”

Many American commentators have convinced themselves of the latter. Sinophobia is real indeed when it comes to the fast growing military force that is the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Some even predict war by 2015 already though, as James Pritchett noted last February, “in terms of global seapower,” China is likely to remain “in the second band of naval powers for some time to come.”

At the same time, there is no denying that the Chinese navy is asserting itself. Just last week it conducted a series of live fire exercises in the East China Sea off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese, still incensed over the appearance of ten Chinese ships near their waters in April, issues a formal protest which compelled Beijing, in turn, to declare that it had done nothing wrong — which, in spite of their ships’ proximity to Japanese waters, was perfectly true.

What’s behind this Cold War-esque bickering really? Grant quotes Gabriel Collins and Michael Grubb, authors of China Goes to Sea (2009), who argue that the Middle Kingdom is embarking on rather a different development path than nations that previously sought to establish themselves as maritime powers.

The Soviet Union, Meiji Japan, and Wilhelmian Germany built their navies first and then promoted merchant marine development. Thus the relationship was based on a “push” from the state, rather than a “pull” in which commercial interests led the way and then the state stepped in to create the capacity to protect these new commercial maritime interests.

China is following a different path marked by an emphasis on commercial maritime development, with naval development trailing. If China continues to expand its naval forces, the drivers will include a mix of a desire for status in the international community and a perceived need to defend economic interests, but the single most prominent element will be that Beijing’s policymakers are struggling to keep up with China’s dynamic commercial mariners.

Those mariners are dynamic indeed! According to Grant, in 1980, China built just 220,000 tons of commercial shipping. After almost thirty years, that number is expected to exceed twenty million this year. China’s “opening up” to the world in the 1970s and subsequent influx of foreign investments paved the way for the country’s currently burgeoning international trade relations which the military, increasingly, feels obliged to protect.

As with all of China’s overseas ventures — whether it’s the scrambling for resources in Africa or the billions of dollars in aid pouring into Afghanistan — the object is economic gain, not conquest. China remains reluctant to interfere internally in the countries it deals with, continually defending states’ sovereignty in international forums and concerned foremost with ensuring its economic growth.

“The interesting thing to watch,” notes Grant, “will be whether China moves to put in place some of the key missing elements — such as overseas bases and a large logistical support fleet — it needs if it intends to provide true global security coverage for its far-reaching mariners.”

That risks upsetting the post-Cold War balance of power in which the United States has solely taken up that responsibility however. That danger alone should be enough reason for the Chinese leadership to avoid such a move, at least for the time being.