In 2001 the hulk of an old Soviet aircraft carrier arrived in Dalian, China. Having been towed from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait halfway around the world, the engine-less warship is now nearing complete modernization. The Chinese have arrived at the point where they will soon launch their first operational aircraft carrier and will have taken their first step in creating a worldwide naval presence.
This aim was made quite clear last week at the 60th anniversary of the establishment of China’s communist naval force. The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the actual translation of the name of the Chinese navy and it was through an official invitation from this organization that the United States had an honored place in the ceremony. Recognizing the importance of the occasion, the U.S. was represented by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead. Pointedly there was no Japanese naval representative; they hadn’t been invited.
When the Chinese carrier is launched, it will have waiting for it a complete battle group of guided missile destroyers and escort frigates, as well as nuclear and conventional submarines along with support ships. One of Taiwan’s principal defense think tanks has already projected 2015 as the date when Chinese naval power will be physically capable of challenging the U.S. Navy in the Taiwan Straits. But even before then the PLAN expect to have a blue water naval strength operating to protect its sea lanes.
It is estimated that approximately 80% of all imported crude and refined oil products destined for China passes through the Malacca Strait that currently is being patrolled by the U.S. 7th Fleet. China seeks to have a major role in the future in policing its own strategic economic routes, and projecting force throughout Asian seas is a top priority. It is not merely a matter of pride, although that is part of it.
China has felt exceedingly vulnerable at sea ever since the shiny new modern navy of the Qing Dynasty was destroyed by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1894. It’s a long time to wait for naval “social” acceptance and the newly rich PRC has no intention of waiting a moment longer. China already has ships operating in the western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, participating in international anti-pirate operations.
Recent challenges to and harassment of an American intelligence surveillance vessel in the South China Sea was a signal that the PRC has no intention of allowing U.S. naval patrols free access to this region, which Beijing contends is within PRC territorial limits.
The United States of course insists this area is strictly in international waters and countered with claims that the Chinese were building a new advanced nuclear-armed submarine that was being hidden from world view.
None of these contretemps prevented Admiral Roughead from being the guest of the commander-in-chief of the PLAN, Admiral Wu Shengli. After all, just a little more than a year ago CINCPAC, Admiral Tim Keating, declared in a high level military meeting in Beijing that an “honest and true friendship” had been created with his Chinese Communist counterparts. Not too long afterward the harassment in the South China Sea occurred.
Diplomatic niceties aside, Beijing intends to challenge the American dominance of the Pacific that has existed since the end of World War II. The PRC is making an investment in its international status as an economic power by building a naval arm that it counts on to become an influential force in its own right. All of this is merely a reflection of China’s ambition to join the United States and Russia by mid-century as a military superpower.
The PRC is very conscious of its financial leverage internationally as well as its obvious role as the United States’ principal banker. The interest its earn annually on the U.S. Treasury paper it owns can easily be translated into the expense of modernizing Beijing’s naval ability. The PLAN is a major beneficiary of the changed international financial scene.
There will be many more mao-tai toasts exchanged in the future between admirals of the U.S. Navy and their PLAN counterparts — of that one can be sure. It is equally sure that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy will grow speedily into a more modern and powerful force. The days of American dominance in the Pacific have been challenged. It is no longer if but when Beijing will reach its naval ambition of equality. Is the U.S. contemplating anything in response?