China's Maritime Dilemma
By: Stratfor.comAugust 3, 2007
China marked the 80th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) with fanfare, foreign media visits to military bases and newspaper and magazine articles praising the army and its role in preserving the nation. Behind the public celebrations, however, there is a serious debate taking place on the future of China's strategic environment-one that pits the PLA's traditional focus on land-based security threats against the new attention to the maritime sphere.

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) celebrated its 80th anniversary Aug. 1, an event marked by fanfare, speeches, performances and a media blitz of praise for the army and its role in preserving the nation. The celebration focused largely on the improvements made in the PLA over the past 80 years, particularly over the past two decades, in weapons systems, technology, capabilities and quality of life for soldiers. But as the PLA publicly celebrates eight decades of operations, a significant internal debate is taking place over the future development of China's armed forces as the country faces a shift in its strategic environment.

Geographically and historically, China is a land power. However, over the past two decades, it has found itself increasingly dependent on resources and markets accessible only via maritime routes. This has left Beijing with the dilemma of how to ensure its trade routes and flow of resources in a world in which the United States is the dominant naval power, and Japan, China's neighbor and strategic rival, is stepping up its own naval capabilities. At the center of the debate over how to protect its increasingly important sea-lanes is the question of whether China needs-or even should-develop a strong power-projection capability to preserve its spreading international interests.

The debate is an age-old issue for land powers that have been thrust into a maritime world.

Through most of its several-thousand-year history, China has been nearly resource self-sufficient and has had an ample domestic labor supply-and therefore has had little pressing need for the kind of expansionist activities seen in Europe. The core of China sits along the three key rivers-the Yellow, Yangtze and Pearl. Much of the current Chinese territory, including Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, was added to exploit natural barriers and strategic depth to keep invaders far off-and thus to protect China's core.

As the Chinese are quick to point out, the Han leadership has almost exclusively focused on defense on the international front (even while it suppresses ethnic minorities in the buffer zones). When China did reach out, aside from during the time of Mongol domination, it was largely along the Silk Road through Central Asia and into the Middle East, where China sought to acquire luxury goods more than vital resources. Even the famed treasure fleets of Zeng He in the early 15th century were more an expression of China's confidence in its own defensive position and its desire for frivolities than a strategic imperative-and as threats of invasion from the north increased, China quickly abandoned its oceangoing enterprises, considering them expensive and distracting from real priorities.

But things are changing. Since the economic opening and reform of the late 1970s, China has increased its need for oil and other energy imports, as well as for raw materials. At the same time, it has become more dependent on foreign export markets for its economic well-being. The days of remaining content with defending its land borders against invaders via strategic buffers and coastline patrols no longer suffice as China's strategic interests reach through Southeast Asia into the Indian Ocean basin and as far as West Africa and Latin America.

At the same time, the end of the Cold War has left China with less room to maneuver than in the days when it could call first on the Soviet Union and then on the United States to help ensure its strategic security. Add in a growing Japanese assertiveness as Tokyo expands its own naval capabilities-currently in connection with the United States but ultimately to better defend its own interests independent of Washington or anyone else-and China is facing an increasingly uncertain security environment. Meanwhile, Beijing cannot ignore its continuing core concerns of massive land borders, the not-quite-integrated strategic buffers such as Xinjiang and Tibet (which also are frequently ethnic enclaves), and the ever-present potential for domestic instability.

China, then, has three options: It can accept U.S. control of the seas and leave its growing economic interests at the mercy of U.S. good will; it can reduce its overall overseas vulnerabilities; or it can begin to prepare its own counterstrategy to defend its overseas interests. The latter will draw the most attention from its neighbors and the United States.

This issue has led to massive debate in Beijing, as well as in the PLA. There are few (but still some) who argue that spending money on a naval buildup to counter the United States or even Japan is a fool's errand. Even if the United States has the capability to interdict China's supply lines, this minority argues, it does not have the desire to do so-nor would it risk the economic repercussions of such action. However, no matter how often Beijing reassures others that it is much more important to look at China's intent rather than its capabilities, true strategic planning must consider the capabilities of potential competitors. Intents, after all, change, and a nation cannot risk its security on the hope of another's magnanimous behavior.

Though the first option-relying on the good graces of the United States-is pretty much off the table (though Beijing will continue to try to manage U.S. perceptions and actions toward China), the Chinese have yet to formulate a cohesive plan to protect their overseas interests. Therefore, China is choosing to combine elements of the second two options-reducing exposure and countering potential threats.

For the former, in addition to looking for alternatives closer to home and for more efficient and less wasteful manufacturing processes, Beijing is considering several ideas for expensive and technologically challenging (to say the least) pipelines, railways, highways and canals to cut across Pakistan, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia in an attempt to reduce the maritime legs of China's supply lines from the Middle East and Africa. Though many of these seem economically and technically unrealistic, the strategic imperative for reducing maritime vulnerability is driving Beijing to pursue-and even fund-some of them.

But even if half of these projects could work (and that is an excessively optimistic prospect), China remains increasingly dependent on these distant areas for resource and markets, and the sea-lanes lose little of their strategic significance.

To defend the sea-lanes, the Chinese navy is focusing its efforts on power-projection capabilities, seeking ways to stretch its current naval power not only throughout the East and South China Sea areas, but also to the Indian Ocean basin and beyond, to West Africa and potentially even Latin America. This risky proposition includes a combination of tools ranging from expanding strategic alliances, new longer-range naval aircraft, increased aerial refueling capabilities, a focus on anti-submarine, anti-air and anti-ship systems, and the oft-surmised quest for an aircraft carrier. Beijing also is pouring resources into its space technologies, seeking ways to supplement its own indigenous satellite reconnaissance and communications systems and reduce the military gap with the United States. For the latter, China is looking at various anti-satellite technologies, from ground-based lasers to anti-satellite missiles, as ways to disrupt or disable U.S. space-based systems that are so vital to U.S. military capabilities.

But the expenditures are rankling China's ground forces, which fear the focus on maritime defense, particularly on showpiece items such as the carriers, will drain necessary funds for land-based defense and new research and technology initiatives. China saw the Soviet Union struggle with its own internal defense expenditures during the Cold War as it was torn between land and maritime threats, and China's problems are compounded by the fact that indigenous weapons development is far behind that of the Soviet Union. In addition, the continued focus on a "great power" tool-an aircraft carrier battle group-is siphoning funds and vision away from other naval systems that might be more cost effective and less vulnerable.

Beijing's naval build up, fueled by a growing concern for China's supply lines and strategic security, is sparking similar regional insecurities, fueling a regional naval arms race. At the same time, it is drawing the unwelcome attention of the United States, which sees China's moves as a potential challenge to U.S. naval dominance in the future. A defensive capability is a capability nonetheless, and just as China cannot count on the good will of the United States, so Washington will not count on China's claims that it is taking purely defensive measures. Capability helps drive strategic planning, and the perception of a China with a growing maritime capability to match its rising economic status is a challenge that will not be ignored.

China has yet to counter the strategic imbalance at sea-and has not yet reached a decision on how best to accomplish that task. China remains far from capable of countering U.S. naval dominance, and will likely even remain behind Japan in maritime power for years, if not decades. But the changing dynamics of China's economic system have forced the new strategic reality upon China, and it is a problem it cannot ignore-even if it has few viable options for achieving security of its supply lines and trade routes.

The more China focuses on its maritime frontiers, the more alarm bells will sound in East Asia and the United States. Doing nothing is not an option, though the continued focus on big-ticket items such as aircraft carriers could ultimately prove counterproductive-failing to bridge the gap while drawing unwanted attention and accelerating counters to China's forays into the sea. The faster China expands, the faster its competitors, particularly Japan and the United States, will move to stay even further ahead. And that will increase the gap China will have to bridge.

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