“A relationship between two sea powers”

James Holmes writes that China may overtake the United States as the dominant naval power, “A flotilla from China’s navy appeared in American waters in early September, a few weeks before President Xi Jinping’s Sept. 24 visit to Washington. Indeed, Chinese Communist Party chieftains evidently instructed warships to take shortcutslawful ones, I hasten to add — through U.S. territorial waters in the Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska. Five vessels cruised the Bering Sea in early September — and elicited a fittingly low-key response from Washington: “China is a global navy,” declared one U.S. Navy spokesman, “and we encourage them and other international navies to operate in international waters as long as they adhere to safe and professional standards and maritime laws of the sea.” Why would China go to the trouble and expense of mounting an expedition to the northern climes in the Western Hemisphere? Because it sees value in staging a presence in distant waters. And because it can: Beijing no longer depends completely on its oceangoing battle fleet to ward off threats in China’s seas. It can now rain long-range precision firepower on enemy fleets from land. Ergo, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet can cruise the far reaches of the Pacific and Indian oceans or even beyond, without forfeiting China’s interests in waters close to home”.

Holmes goes on to make the point that “For China, the upsides of far-ranging maritime strategy are many and compelling, the downsides fewer and fewer. The PLAN’s Aleutians sojourn is the latest expression of Xi’s project to make China, a traditional continental power, into what he calls a “true maritime power” — and helping the nation fulfill its “Chinese dream.” Such aspirations will form an undercurrent to discussions between him and U.S. President Barack Obama. The takeaway? A new age of Chinese bluewater assertiveness is upon us. What does Beijing stand to gain from a venturesome maritime strategy? A lot. Consider the location of its recent foray: The Bering Strait constitutes the most convenient entryway to the Arctic Ocean for Chinese merchant and naval vessels. Assuming the ice recedes as climate change advances, polar shipping routes will prove shorter and less convoluted — and thus less expensive and troublesome — than current alternatives. Consequently, it makes perfect sense for the PLAN to establish a presence along prospective sea lanes to Eurasia’s north”.

He adds that “Until recently, naval officials were cautious about dispatching task forces beyond the Western Pacific and China seas. This changed, however, as the fleet matured in hardware terms. The finest weapon is no better than its operator. Now that the PLAN appears largely satisfied with its weaponry, it’s time to refine the human factor. Hence PLAN task forces are out and about on the seven seas more — not just the recent trip to the Aleutians, but also a September 2015 port call in Egypt, a May visit to the Black Sea, and assorted other naval diplomatic endeavours. This should be familiar to U.S. seafarers from their own coming out as a great navy a century ago, when their Great White Fleet circumnavigated the globe. Tend to materiel, tend to people: That’s wholesome goodness from a strategic standpoint. Apart from all this, Xi & Co. may have hoped to advance China’s cause in home waters by needling the United States in its home waters. Chinese officials and military officers commonly assume that Americans would never tolerate in their near seas what the U.S. Navy does in China’s near seas — sending surveillance planes along the coast, conducting underwater surveys, flying tactical aircraft from carriers, and the like. That’s why they’re forever invoking the Monroe Doctrine, or the Cuban missile crisis, or some other episode from U.S. history that supposedly proves that the United States claims the right to proscribe certain actions in its maritime environs”.

He continues “Over time, relinquishing freedom of the sea in Southeast Asia might degrade the principle of freedom of the sea worldwide. It might discredit it altogether. No longer would the South China Sea be a maritime commons — and that would embolden powerful predators elsewhere around the globe to lay claim to their own adjacent waterways. Today, the South China Sea. Tomorrow, the Black Sea or Persian Gulf? Still, if Beijing hopes to goad Washington into a hissy fit or impel it to abridge U.S. naval operations along the Asian periphery, it’s apt to be disappointed. One suspects Chinese officials are guilty of mirror imaging: assuming Americans see the world the same way the Chinese do and will respond the way the Chinese do to the actions of others”.

Holmes correctly notes that this assumption is not a safe one, “Americans don’t take the same proprietary attitude toward the sea that the Chinese do. They barely think about the sea at all. (That body of water to our south is the Gulf of Mexico, for Pete’s sake!) Even at the height of U.S. activism under the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century, the United States didn’t attempt to claim the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea as sovereign property. That makes a marked distinction with China, which regards the South China Sea as “blue national soil”: territory that belongs to China and where Chinese domestic law rules. Attitudes toward the sea aside, the Cold War is the historical episode that illustrates how U.S. officialdom will likely respond to PLAN voyages in the Americas. Washington views the presence of foreign navies near U.S. shores as the price of doing business on the briny main. Freedom of the sea is a matter of reciprocity. Abridge maritime liberties for others and they’re likely to abridge them for you”.

Worryingly he argues “China has yet to acclimate to the rules of the nautical game. Why? Because continental powers like China tend to think about the sea differently than natural seafaring states like the United States or Great Britain. Where nautical peoples see a commons — an ungoverned space, open for the free use of all — terrestrial peoples see national territory, to be governed as though it were dry land. A chasm separates Chinese from Western worldviews. Nor did China’s Cold War experience much change its land-bound mindset. The nation faced inward during Mao Zedong’s 1949 to 1976 reign, in an effort to make itself a modern industrial power in a hurry. Its navy was hemmed in behind an offshore island chain occupied by U.S. allies, and thus had to content itself with defending China’s seacoasts against amphibious invasion. Beijing was increasingly obsessed with strategic competition with the Soviet Union and gazed northward across the Sino-Soviet land frontier rather than turning seaward. Until the launch of China’s reform and opening project in the late 1970s, China kept its focus largely on land. Beijing never acculturated to high-seas strategic competition the way the United States and Soviet Union did”.

Interestingly he argues that “But Beijing now seems set on a different course. Chinese officials have gone on record with their maritime territorial claims so often and so vociferously that they would make them themselves look weak and feckless before their own people should they relent: It’s hard to imagine them abandoning their challenge to maritime freedoms now. Inflexible public commitments — the South China Sea “belongs to China” being a recent one — have a way of tying officials’ hands”.

He ends noting the offensive strategy of the PLAN, “the best offense is a good defense for China — not the other way around. Solid defence close to home, in other words, frees the PLAN battle fleet to prowl the China seas and much of the Western Pacific, executing offensive missions while summoning fire support from airfields and mobile missile batteries should the need arise. Shore defenses constitute a liberating force for PLAN skippers, not a millstone the way they were for Russian seafarers a century ago. In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have dawned, courtesy of high technology. And the benefits of access denial extend beyond the Western Pacific. If Beijing is confident enough in its shore-based defenses, it could deploy part or all of its fortress fleet as an out-of-area, expeditionary fleet. PLAN task forces could venture beyond the protective anti-access/area denial cocoon on errands the party leadership deems important. Just look at the PLAN’s excellent Aleutians adventure as part of this upswing in the vigor and ambition of Chinese naval operations. Fortress China is a now continental-cum-maritime power able to shape events at sea from the land: a sea power that enjoys the liberty to embrace a forward-leaning marine strategy. PLAN flotillas will become an increasingly common sight in seaports throughout maritime Asia — and beyond. That’s something to ponder as Xi goes to Washington. No longer is the relationship between China and the United States the relationship between a land and a sea power: It’s now a relationship between two sea powers”.

 

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