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The future of America’s long-running dominance of the seas is under threat.
The Department of Defense reported recently that the Chinese navy is continuing
to modernize at a rapid clip. It is adding guided missile destroyers and nuclear
and diesel-electric attack submarines to its fleet, and is developing
over-the-horizon radars and next-generation anti-ship cruise missiles, and
possibly even the first ever anti-ship ballistic missile. Not only have Chinese
ships recently harassed unarmed U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, but
according to reports emanating from Japan, China will likely complete
construction on two conventional aircraft carriers by 2015, and will begin
construction on two more nuclear carriers in 2020.
Recently, an influential People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publication put these
power projection plans in context. The newspaper described the concept of a
“national interest frontier”: national defense will be extended to include all
areas of the globe where China has interests.
Unfortunately, these developments have received little attention in the
United States. China, the thinking goes, presents only a potential long-term
threat and its efforts to build carriers are not as frightening as North Korean
and Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons arsenals. But China is already a
nuclear power, and its ambitions far outreach those of its erstwhile friends in
Pyongyang or its newfound friends in Iran.
Indeed, while the prospect of nuclear-armed rogues is alarming, China’s rise
provides a great threat to broader U.S. interests and to global stability and
security. As a country whose “behavior as a responsible stakeholder has yet to
be consistently demonstrated,” as PACOM commander Admiral Timothy Keating has
said, China’s plan to acquire carriers should be raising alarm bells.
To be sure, China’s efforts to develop a modernized, deployable fleet are not
entirely unreasonable. China’s economy is heavily dependent on maritime trade,
and thus the safeguarding of shipping lanes is critical to Chinese security. One
cannot fault China for sending destroyers to East African waters to protect its
But given the many divergent U.S.-Chinese interests, it is important to
consider the downsides of China’s future naval plans. Protection of China’s
merchant fleet is certainly not the PLA Navy’s only reason for building carriers
and deploying ships far outside its territorial waters. China is acting to alter
the balance of power in Asia and working to diminish U.S. presence in the
region. The PLA has engaged in a significant build-up over the past twenty
years. China’s Air Force is on pace to have the largest air fleet in the region
within the next decade. Their navy is developing blue-water capabilities,
deploying new submarines at an unparalleled rate, and, now, is determined to add
aircraft carriers to its fleet. And the PLA has modernized and grown its
strategic conventional and nuclear missile force. In short, China is developing
considerable power projection capabilities at a time when it faces no
discernable external threats. Its cutting edge cyber and space weaponry are
explicitly aimed at attacking American vulnerabilities. While China’s strategic
plans are not made public, the nature of its military build-up suggests that
China is intent on reasserting itself as the dominant power in Asia. Only the
United States stands in its way.
The forthcoming construction of Chinese carriers is thus not a welcome
development. China has not shied away from gunboat diplomacy in the past, and
the harassment of the USNS Impeccable, for example, shows that a growing Chinese
naval presence in Asia is not a stabilizing force. “The Impeccable incident,”
Admiral Keating said, “is certainly a troubling indicator that China,
particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome
manner, and they’re not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or
rules of the road.” The American navy must keep a close eye on its Chinese
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been responsible for
securing the seas in the Asia-Pacific. The presence of PLA Navy carriers will
significantly complicate that mission. The idea that Chinese carriers will some
day soon patrol the Asian seas is causing heartburn in Taiwan, Japan, Southeast
Asia, and India as well. India is already concerned about China’s increasing
reach into the Indian Ocean; carriers in those waters would almost certainly
spark a more spirited naval arms race. It is the U.S. Navy’s security guarantee
that has prevented such arms races since World War II, and has allowed the
region to grow increasingly peaceful; this is why Asia is home to so many
economic success stories, China included. Chinese carriers, and advancing
“national frontier interests,” can only destabilize the Asia-Pacific and lead it
down a path that no state–save perhaps the People’s Republic–wants to
China’s acquisition of carriers will not only destabilize the Asia-Pacific.
Once the PLA Navy has deployed nuclear carrier battle groups, other regions
could be within reach. China’s naval capabilities could complicate the U.S.
ability to take military action, both in the Pacific and elsewhere. Should the
time ever come, for example, when Washington must seriously contemplate military
action against Iran or terrorist training camps in Africa, how will the calculus
change if there is a Chinese carrier in the Persian Gulf or the
Given China’s massive military build-up, its lack of military transparency,
and its often provocative external behavior, Beijing simply cannot be counted on
to act responsibly as a global power. China’s neighbors are right to view its
actions, its motives, and its explanations with suspicion, and America must do
the same. A world in which Chinese carrier battle groups roam the seas is a less
stable, less secure world. Unfortunately, there is likely little that can be
done to prevent this eventuality. As the Defense Department has reported, the
Chinese shipbuilding industry’s ability to produce carriers is not in doubt, and
the PLA has already begun training navy pilots to operate carrier-borne
Fortunately, we do still have time to prepare countermeasures. It will be at
least six years until China has carriers that are ready to sail, and longer
still until they are operationally effective. Eleven more years will pass before
construction on nuclear carriers even begins. But America cannot be lax in
preparing for this eventual challenge. U.S. military planners must now determine
what is needed to counter the threat posed by Chinese carriers.
President Obama must not allow short-term economic and security interests to
blind him to long-term defense needs. We all hope China will prove itself to be
a responsible great power in the years to come. But hope is no basis for
Michael Mazza is a research assistant at AEI.
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