And some China musings: Papers in USNI Proceedings and the Hoover Digest

by Craig Hooper on April 10, 2011

Over the course of my naval blogging, nothing has worried me more than the Pacific. I worry that American policymakers have taken their eyes off the ball, distracted by impulsive, poorly justified national security choices (i.e. Iraq and Libya). As resources dwindle, the margin for error and or ability to absorb/compensate/fix strategic mistakes dwindle too.

Other countries are increasingly able to capitalize on American mis-steps. We don’t deal with that well, at all. With China, in particular, America’s penchant for panic in the face of even the most minimal of perceived challenges poses a real–and largely unrecognized–security threat.

That is why the US desperately needs a comprehensive national security strategy for the Pacific.

The United States needs a strategic outline for the Pacific. Not a milk-toast “glossy” maritime strategy “outline” or a some phone-book sized strategic door-stop (think QDR), but more strategy built around public discussion and good, thorough debates on basic strategy. That’s why I am excited to see this sort of conference take place out at the Navy War College. (I’m glad to have been invited, and hope to attend. It looks interesting, and I hope to be able to make some contributions there.)

In the Pacific theatre, I am particularly worried about how America will respond as other countries begin to employ naval force in ways that we have pretty much taken for granted. I fear the United States public (and policymakers) will fail to react in a constructive fashion once China decides to engage in some, oh, unilateral peace-keeping exercise of it’s own someplace in the Pacific (and, for that matter, nor do I believe the PLA will constrain its apatite for new territory–particularly if the pickings are tiny Pacific kleptocracies.). A good strategy would seek to prevent–or reduce the need–for the PLA to get into a situation where it might succumb to temptation.

To start that discussion off, Hoover Fellow Commander David Slayton (USN) and I penned a few papers looking at this very issue. In the Hoover Digest, we present “China at Sea“, and at USNI Proceedings we offer, “The real game changers of the Pacific Basin” (and no, to answer all the questions from those who have gotten the printed version, we didn’t write or see the captions on the illustrations there before the article went to press!). They’re pretty much identical papers–but I think the Hoover one reads better.

Anyway, the gist of the two papers is this: We feel that the first unilateral tests of China’s emergent amphibious force will take place in the deep Pacific, and that there is a risk China will exploit local (and very, very violent) anti-Chinese violence as a justification to carry out some form of a HA/DR or NEO evacuation. But we also fear that such activity will creep into some form of Spratly-like squatting and, in time, a permanent presence and/or territorial claim.

After all, what member of the PLA would refuse a Chinese “Diego Garcia” in the Pacific? Those islands can be darned useful, after all.

Are we panicking? Maybe. On a parochial level, panic is good–and the Marine Corps must be thrilled with us right now. But I feel that provocation is going to become a regular part of the Western Pacific’s strategic fabric. Australia’s Peter Howarth, I think, hit the nail on the head back in 2006, in “China’s Rising Sea Power: The PLA Navy’s Submarine Challenge.” In the book, he quoted Castex:

The side whose serious inferiority on the surface condemns it to the defensive ought always, despite its unfavorable situation, to try to be as active and aggressive as possible. Its fleet should remember that the very fact of its existence is sufficient to confer upon it the title of “Fleet in Being”, and that, if it wants to have some influence on events, it has to give some sign of its state of being, which it can do by undertaking something, by trying to impose its will to the extent that its means allow, seeking as far as it can the operational initiative, even if it does not result in anything decisive.

That’s what is going on here. China is not building a blue-water Navy–they’re building a Navy to serve as a goad.

China’s ships–even relatively recently built front-line craft (that are expected to remain in service for the next twenty years)–are glass-jawed wonders, complete with plywood interiors. The PLA(N) still has trouble producing sufficient fresh water for embarked crew. And on a regional basis, with South Korea, Japan, Australia or other allies added in, China’s Navy looks far less daunting. It’s a fleet built to confront than to provoke and exploit.

Just look at the strategic message put forth by naming their first aircraft carrier (a feeble, aged hulk that it is), after the Admiral who conquered Taiwan. Add in the fact that work was sped up on the craft to, in part, enter service during the U.S. Navy’s Centennial of Aviation. (Nevermind the fact that this platform will likely be mostly used as a test DF-21D targeting surrogate, but hey, that’s for another day, right?) China gets a heck of a lot of mileage out of minimal investment. China has a strategy, and they are doing the things they need to do to carry it out.

America isn’t. And that worries me.

**There is also an aside here about leveraging intellectual capital, too. I mean, why isn’t there far more collaboration between Australian and U.S. strategic think-tanks? As far as Navy studies go, Australia hits far above its weight, as does Singapore. We should have all kinds of joint strategic studies going on in that part of the world, but, frankly, I’ve not been impressed. We should be doing a lot more to engage our Pacific Partners–we can start by trying to send more officers over with the express purpose of forging good strategy. And, for that matter, let’s encourage more Aussies to come to the War Colleges as well.**

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  • para

    Craig, I think, you have jumped the shark with this one and seem to play blind man just like Gates and the Pentagon and they are being exposed for their naive comments by actual developments pretty much on an annual basis now. Just why does this progress in Chinese military capabilities, which is entirely in line with their financial, industrial and educational capabilities, and their geopolitical position, seem so outlandish and unreasonable to a certain audience mostly comprising Americans? Is the urge to promote American and Western exceptionalism really that strong?! The US really are in demise, when denial overtakes factual observation.

    “That’s what is going on here. China is not building a blue-water Navy–they’re building a Navy to serve as a goad. China’s ships–even relatively recently built front-line craft (that are expected to remain in service for the next twenty years)–are glass-jawed wonders, complete with plywood interiors. The PLA(N) still has trouble producing sufficient fresh water for embarked crew.”

    That’s a bold assertion backed up by seemingly no evidence sans that fresh-water-anecdote. This whole part of your article reads like a fairly unprofessional rant, a nice touch in that regard is that Shi Lang-bit, which is pure Internet-speculation with no basis in reality (the linked article seems to make that part up and provides no proof of its claims whatsoever).

    I have seen one of their ships up-close, the Shenzhen, and from what I saw and heard, it had a lousy damage-control-system, but then again that ship is something like 15 years old by now. It would be great, if you could actually provide some real evidence, why those new Chinese ships are merely some sort of mirage. You casually throw in THE answer re. the purpose of Varyag and its in-service-date, again without substantiating your claim (Seriously, the US centennial? You realise, that the CPC has its 90th birthday on 1st of July, which might be a_tad more important to China? And no comment on those training facilities for carrier-based operations, or all those assets in development and production…you really think, thats all just a facade for this fleet-in-being?).

    As far as could be observed over the past ten years or so, China instead seems to make slow, determined and comprehensive steps to form a proper blue-water-force, missing not one step and without caving in on the rest of its naval responsibilities such as the Coast Guard and littoral operations. They modernize frigates, destroyers, supply ships, amphibious warfare units, add Fleet Air Warfare capability, networked sensors and communication etc. Over the past six years the PLAN managed to put some 20 new hulls above 4000 tons on the water, more than they had in the five decades before, and the speed in shipbuilding actually increased over the past two years, with no end in sight. Dito regarding SSK-purchase and construction.

    Regarding the general situation in East Asia, its not a secret really that both South Korea and Japan are now engaged in some kind of arms race, aiming at China and each other. With Japan it remains to be seen, how long they can sustain their military procurements, with their economy in shambles for a decade now and no sign of improvement. South Korea, even with its navy growing, is sizing up modestly in comparison to the PLANs pace of construction.

  • CapnVan

    Craig — re: The Pacific needs a NATO

    I wouldn’t disagree with you on the conceptual need for a collective security response to the rise of China’s power projection. If anything, we lost an important decade of preparation.

    What I’m wondering is more practical. Who’s in? And what does PaTO look like?

    In the cases of the islands, in large part, you’re talking about states which can barely operate fisheries vessels — they’re not going to be able to contribute meaningfully. And worse, on the diplomatic scene, as we’ve seen from Palau’s recognition of Abkazia, they can basically be bought by anyone.

    One would assume Australia’s a given, but I’m not so sure the Kiwis are looking for the same kind of formalized relationship — and they punch above their weight diplomatically.

    But from there, who else? PNG? Indonesia? Malaysia? Will they accept a formal treaty relationship with the US? The Phillippines?

    Japan? Will their constitution even allow it? S. Korea? They seem to have their hands full at the moment, and may not want to poke the dragon.

    India? Vietnam? Both strike me as essential to a collective security approach to China, but whether they’d be willing, well…

    Love to hear your thoughts before you complete the sell-out ;-p

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