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The PLAN begins to come into its own

April 28, 2010

Over the past few months, a few very important stories have emerged out of China, specifically its naval program. One is the testimony by Admiral Willard, who heads USPACOM, who not only reaffirmed the quick pace of Chinese naval modernization, but the testing of an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) based on the DF-21/CSS-5. Though much speculated about in the past, issues such as sorting out mid-course and terminal guidance (for the ASBM is not a wholly ballistic missile, its lack of a nuclear payload necessitates a higher degree of accuracy), have left many skeptical of the weapon’s feasibility. Nevertheless, China is already testing such a weapon, which opens the door to a mission-kill capability against US carriers up to 2,000km from Chinese shores. Only anti-ballistic missile defenses would be able to intercept such a strike, though the US can probably significantly decrease its effectiveness through severing the communications links and sensors necessary for the missile’s targeting and guidance. The development of anti-access strategies such as these are no longer hypothetical threats, they are real possibilities.

Abe Denmark of CNAS rounds up many other sobering developments in Chinese naval strategy. Recently, China has conducted maritime shows of force around Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The rationale?

These exercises are also notable for their location and their timing. By transiting the Miyako Strait and operating in highly contested waters, China is sending a signal to the region that it is developing the ability to back up its territorial sea claims with more than just rhetoric. These exercises were conducted a few weeks after Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeff Bader visited Beijing. As reported by the New York Times, they were told that the South China Sea is a “core interest” for the PRC. This is an important phrase for Beijing – it raises the South China Sea to the same level of significance as Taiwan and Tibet – and suggests a newly aggressive and provocative approach.

China has long claimed that the South China Sea is within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) forces foreign militaries to seek permission from Beijing before they can transit through. Of course, xix other countries in the region also claim all or part of the South China Seas. So the United States has long identified EEZs as international waters through which military vessels can freely pass.

The point about China claiming the South China Sea as a “core interest” indicates that while China has shed the predominantly landward bent of its grand strategy, the principles which it applied to its territory endure in this new strategy. Chinese control over areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet provide the Han heartland with security against China’s neighbors. Occupying these regions was not just an ideological goal but a geopolitical hedge against foreign incursion. The ability to execute a sea denial strategy across the South China Sea provides China a similar amount of strategic depth against its new rival, the United States, which unlike China’s most recent major rival, the USSR, is a sea power, not a land-oriented neighbor. China’s expansive definition of sovereignty serves purposes of both nationalist legitimation and realpolitik. While the reluctance of Western powers to bring any significant pressure to bear over Tibet and Xinjiang has consigned those regions to their present fates, America need not sacrifice the interest of virtually every other nation and its own in keeping the South China Sea from becoming a PLAN lagoon in the interest of warmer Sino-American relations. Reassuring allies and deterring China from claiming neighboring seas for its own simply requires the frequent US naval patrols and navigation exercises and efforts to ratify UNCLOS which Denmark discusses.

China’s rapid advancement in anti-access capabilities, however, reminds us that our naval presence is not invincible, and that the US cannot simply assume it will maintain total dominance in all possible combat theaters. Nor should Americans assume that in cutting America’s bloated defense budget, that maintaining a strong fleet and investing in new naval systems are outmoded priorities. While today’s current wars are manpower intensive counterinsurgencies and the short conventional phases of most of our recent wars were won with air power. The USN will remain a critical element of US strategy, especially during peacetime. Even as the US experiences relative decline, maintaining a robust naval force will be necessary, especially if the US hopes to maintain the maximum amount of strategic leverage with a reduced global profile. Small wars may be the defining conflicts of the immediate future, but when we consider it takes decades for the US to send a ship from the drafting board to the drydock, forward thinking about the geopolitical possibilities of tomorrow, however unlikely they seem today, is especially prudent.

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