Ben Schreer’s recent post on China’s maritime dilemmas reminded us that we should always think about what capabilities are intended to achieve, and not make a fetish of the capabilities themselves. Beijing’s progress in A2/AD is one thing, but achieving political ends with a blue-water navy is another.
But there are two things I’d draw attention to. Firstly, we don’t care about China’s capacity to achieve its objectives; we care about its capacity to prevent us (read friends and allies of the US) from achieving our own. Secondly, China’s pursuit of a blue water capability isn’t necessarily a big concern for us in itself (at least for now). What does matter is what it tells us about the way China views its future operational options, and its role in the region.
I couldn’t agree more with Ben when he says that it would be extremely difficult for China to establish sea control under current circumstances, even in the South China Sea. If we only look at attack submarines, and confine ourselves just to the US and Japan, between them they could indefinitely keep around 20 on station in Asian waters. Even discounting the host of other denial instruments at the disposal of the US and partners, China’s surface ships, including the aircraft carrier and its future brethren, face a high level of risk.
But whether China can achieve its objectives or is wasting its money on a vulnerable surface fleet is largely their problem. What matters to us is whether or not Beijing can raise the level of risk to western surface fleets sufficiently far that they judge that their operational objectives aren’t worth the potential costs.
The fact that the PLAN is spending big on blue water capability shows one of two kinds of thinking. It’s entirely possible that it’s an expensive platform idolisation, light on operational analysis; navies around the world have been guilty of that. The alternative is that the PLAN have calculated that their capacity to run a maritime denial strategy is sufficiently well developed that planning to push for some level of maritime control is a sensible step.
We can only guess which of these is more likely; it’s probably some combination of the two. We might doubt the PLAN’s implied judgment that pursuing some level of sea control is a plausible option for it in the future. But it’d be poor policy-making to rely on China to miscalculate. And, of course, if Beijing’s exploring options for sea control, it won’t be based on today’s balance of forces, it’ll be based on anticipation of a more favourable calculus for the PLAN in the future. Lastly, even if we think they’re wrong about the plausibility of Chinese sea control, the development of the PLAN is important because of what it tells us about their own confidence in sea denial.
Which brings us back to the first point. We have plenty to worry about before we start planning to counter a Chinese bid for sea control in the Malacca Straits. For example, it’s precisely the fear of limited US options, and of the mounting costs and risks the US would have to accept to intervene in Asia, that Tokyo is getting nervous. Regardless of what operational options the Chinese are aiming for, if they can establish sea denial in their near region then it puts a big dent in the available options for the US and its allies.
But what the PLAN’s blue water capability development really tells us is how optimistic it would be to assume that China is willing to fit into a US-led order in Asia. Whether the PLAN’s expansion is a manifestation of sensible Chinese operational and strategic planning or not, it’s a hint at China’s sense of its place in the world.
Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the US Navy.