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Strategic Implications of China’s Burgeoning Sea Power

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | July 08, 2019

Last Wednesday China completed a major naval exercise in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. On July 3 it was reported that China was testing a new naval helicopter which “could fill a big gap” in its expanding fleet. Over the weekend, Australian media reported that the country’s navy was monitoring a Chinese Type 815 vessel, specialized for at-sea surveillance and reconnaissance, which itself was monitoring U.S.-Australian naval exercises off Queensland. It is now commonly accepted that China has overtaken Russia as naval power.

The significance of China’s increasing naval assertiveness is related to Beijing’s grand-strategic understanding of the country’s position in relation to its major competitor, the United States, and its declared objective to change the global balance of power. As always, a country’s rising economic strength tends to be reflected in its geopolitical clout. Around 1878 America overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy. Twenty years later, having defeated Spain, America took over the remnant of her empire and became a global power. During the same period Germany’s massive economic growth enabled her to establish colonies in Africa and to build an ocean-going navy. (This was a strategic mistake because it alienated Britain, but that is another story.) Even the tiny Netherlands, having grown rich in the 1600’s, proceeded to establish a commercially-oriented empire in the East Indies, the Cape, and the Caribbean.

China’s economy is now roughly equal in size to that of the United States, and Beijing is seeking geopolitical adjustments to that reality. Its grand strategy is focused on securing supply chains, however, and not on acquiring legal titles to faraway lands, establishing permanent military bases, or showing the flag for reasons of prestige. The program of building islands in the disputed areas of the South China Sea and militarizing them admittedly looks expansionist. In the context of historical record it also may be seen as a strategically defensive move to secure the vital node of China’s maritime supply chains in uncertain times, a reflection of the Confucian striving for stability rather than an audacious bid to establish regional hegemony.

In the quest for clues to China’s current grand strategy it is necessary to consider her past record of coping with external challenges and devising methods of power projection. The Middle Kingdom is unique among the great powers known to history in two key respects.

1.      China has existed continuously as a major state for over two millennia. In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered the many warring states and assumed the new title of Huangdi,emperor,” thus marking the birth of imperial China. This was three years before the Roman Republic faced an existential threat from Hannibal’s army in the Second Punic War. History has recorded the rise and fall–or terminal decline–of many great powers since that time, including imperial Rome and Byzantium, Ottomans and Habsburgs, Spain and Sweden, France and Britain. The only one which has displayed comparable endurance, Japan, solidified into a centralized state some eight hundred years after the First Emperor of the Qin. Due to its insular position, prior to 1945 Japan had never encountered threats comparable to those China faced along her vulnerable northern frontier.

2.      China’s borders had expanded steadily around the early Qin core for centuries, but they were fundamentally little changed under the Ming dynasty, more than 1600 years later, and still clearly discernible in the form of an enlarged Han heartland at the peak extent of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty in 1765. By contrast the United States expanded from 864,000 square miles in 1800 to 3.8 million in 1867. Russia grew from around one million square miles in 1547 under the first Tzar, Ivan IV, to 8.8 million in 1900. From an insignificant speck on the map under Elisabeth I, by 1920 the British Empire expanded to rule over a quarter of the world’s population and a just under a quarter of the land area, 16 million square miles.

Longevity and restrained growth reflect a remarkable continuity of China’s grand strategy over the centuries, regardless of dynastic cycles and postimperial ideological shifts. All along the first priority of the state has been external security and internal stability, with the focus on political and cultural coherence of the Han heartland.

That core’s remarkable homogeneity is another distinct feature: China is arguably the only monoethnic empire in history, with 90 percent of the population sharing common origins, written language, and family-/clan-centered social structure. Its adherence to a broadly Confucian set of social norms and beliefs was only temporarily disrupted during the Mao era (1949-1978). Such monolithic structure has enabled China to maintain continuity of state institutions and strategic objectives even under foreign rule, specifically to “tame” and sinicize the Mongol Yuans (1271-1368) and Manchurian Qins (1644-1911). The only remotely comparable example in history is Alexander’s susceptibility to the trappings of Persian court splendor following his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire.

An essentially defensive, land-focused grand strategy has resulted in the treatment of sea power as secondary in the allocation of state resources. China’s tellurocratic bias was manifested in extreme form in 1433, when the Ming state abruptly forbade all long-distance voyages, ordered destruction of ocean-worthy vessels and nautical maps, abandoned Moluccan bases, and effectively abdicated its presence in the maritime near-abroad (let alone the Indian Ocean). The ensuing “Fortress China” strategy was enhanced by the retreat behind the Great Wall in the north after the catastrophic defeat of imperial troops at Tumu in 1449.

A long period of geopolitical decline was the price of strategic shortsightedness. It had a broad parallel in the decline of the Byzantine Empire after it neglected the navy for budgetary reasons in the tenth century and suffered a ruinous defeat from the Turks on land, at Manzikert, in 1071. China was able to continue incremental expansion to the west, north, and northeast, and to maintain the form of tributary relations with its southern neighbors, for over three hundred years. It was not able, however, to protect itself from an eventual challenge by Europe’s technologically superior naval powers. In the XVI century the Portuguese reaped the profits from China’s foreign trade, followed by the Dutch, and–fatally–by the British in the XIX century. The shock of the First Opium War (1839-42) marked the onset of the century of humiliation.

China’s long and ultimately self-defeating antipathy to sea power is at odds with the experience of other tellurocracies which were forced to learn the art of navigation in order to survive and expand. The Spartans were victorious in the Peloponnesian War when they built a fleet and defeated the Athenians at their own game. The Romans did the same in the First Punic War, copying both Carthaginian ship designs and battle tactics. Less than a century after the first wave of Islamic conquests, the Arabs built a fleet strong enough to threaten Constantinople, to conquer Sicily, southern Italy and the Balearics, and to terrorize Christian communities all along the southern coasts of Europe. Russia started developing a navy from nothing under Peter, but by the end of Catherine’s reign six decades later it was able to field a powerful, fully operational naval squadron in the Mediterranean. Japan under Emperor Meiji rose to regional naval hegemony in a single generation, after two and a half centuries of self-isolation under the Shogunate, as manifested in the victorious war of aggression against China in 1895 and the defeat of the Russian Baltic Fleet at Tsushima in 1904.

These and other examples–from different periods and geographic locations–indicate that the ruling elite’s prevailing strategic culture is not necessarily an impediment to the development of geostrategically determined components of state power. The likely clue is in the peculiar nature of Confucian elitist Weltanschauung which was inherently adverse to any form of physical expansion, or even mere presence, outside the Middle Kingdom’s clearly demarcated borders of political control and cultural dominance.
The belief in one’s absolute superiority – which was well founded until the late Ming period – and concomitant xenophobia eventually morphed, in the early XIX century, into willful refusal to adapt and respond adequately to external challenges. China behaved as an ethnocentric universe obstinately impervious to the change in its threat environment. Even after the rude awakening of 1839, China’s elites resisted the path of radical modernization. This was in sharp contrast to the shock therapy of Western-inspired reforms which Japan embraced under Emperor Meiji, while at the same time safeguarding its cultural identity and ethnic purity. In the meantime external weakness and internal instability made China an object of Western exploitation and Japanese aggression well into the twentieth century.

Today’s China is making a naval comeback after a hiatus which lasted almost six hundred years. A green-water coastal force inherited from Mao’s era, neglected in the strategic calculus of Deng and his early heirs, the PLA Navy has been developing fast into a blue water force since the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Then-President Hu Jintao declared in his keynote speech that China would become a “maritime power” capable of safeguarding its rights and interests at sea. The new strategy was reinforced in the 2015 defense white paper: “Traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” This position was reiterated in April 2018, when President Xi Jinping said that “the task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today."

What makes China’s return to the sea geopolitically feasible is that her land borders are now more secure than at any time in history. Unlike the situation in the early 1400s, when protecting northern Limes against the Mongols took complete precedence over the sea, today’s China has no present or even likely threat looming anywhere along her 10,000-mile continental perimeter. The collapse of the USSR was the seminal moment. Beijing’s current partnership with Russia is mutually beneficial and based on a tacit understanding that China’s demographic and economic strength make her the dominant side. In Central Asia, China’s economic penetration and the corresponding growth of its political influence proceed along the east-west axis towards the Caspian Sea, cutting right across the putative Russian north-south vector towards Iran. China’s southern borders are protected as always by the impenetrable Himalayan mountain range, and the lingering territorial dispute with India in Assam is strategically insignificant.

In the third decade of this century China is well poised to pursue great-power status. Its grand strategy is not formulated in an official document, but its contours are clear: maintaining domestic order and prosperity, breaking beyond the First Island Chain, steadily establishing and strengthening global “Belt and Road” networks. Grand-strategic continuity with the imperial era is clearly discernible in the disinclination to use military force and to adopt high-risk strategies. Some discontinuity is apparent in the focus on naval strength and anti-ship defenses, above all on the new generation of carrier-killing missiles which have the potential to make aircraft carriers as obsolete as the naval air arm had made battleships obsolete during the Second World War.

The ability of the United States to accommodate China’s rise, rather than confront it, may decide the destiny of the world. Is it a vital interest of the United States to maintain full-spectrum dominance in the Pacific ad infinitum, and possibly at the cost of a major war? This key question was the theme of Graham Allison’s 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison’s key thesis is that major wars often result from the confrontation between a status-quo power and a rising challenger. In order to avoid the contemporary Thucydides's trap, Allison says, U.S. decision-makers should grasp that China’s assessments of threats and opportunities are very different from America’s own.

As I wrote in this column just two months ago, it is evident that China seeks to exclude the U.S. from the Asian mainland in order to restore what it sees as its rightful sphere of influence and “harmonious co-existence.” It is also evident, over many centuries of human experience, that it is futile for any status quo power to try and prevent geopolitical adjustments that would reflect the realities of a new distribution of power in real space. The Chinese leaders are reconciled to a possible major confrontation with the U.S. a decade or two from now, but they are not ready for it now. When it comes to America’s long-term global position, China is far more perilous to the maintenance of Pax Americana than Russia has ever been.


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