Planners in the People’s Republic of China rightly see the need for a capable, blue water naval force to support and sustain the PRC’s rise as a global economic and strategic power. What has largely been missing, however, from the PRC’s maritime dialog is a philosophical framework which would contain, or viably enable, such a maritime projection.
The PRC sees the necessity to replace or eclipse the United States as the dominant global sea power. However, mainland China’s rise to economic good fortune has depended — and continues to depend — on the concept of a free and open maritime commons which has been articulated, championed, and sustained first by the United Kingdom, and then by the US.
This concept has helped not only ensure freedom of open seas navigation, but the stability of the trading nations and the choke points which govern the ocean arteries. For the PRC to attain global trading dominance, it would, of necessity, have to assume the primary rôle in maintaining global stability and (almost ipso facto) the freedom of the ocean commons. This implies, too, that at some point, if the present US dominance of the seas declined, so too would its capability and interest in sustaining a stable ocean and trading framework.
There appears to be an assumption that the PRC could, at least in the short term, constrain the maritime efficacy of the US and the West and merely dominate the sea lines for its own benefit, without the attendant cost of comprehensive PRC power projection to support comprehensive ocean dominance and the stability of its trading partners. And yet it is not only the stability of those resource and market states on which the PRC depends, but also a network of freight vessels flagged by many other states who would depend on the PRC to safeguard their passages.
The question of PRC dominance of its near oceans — particularly the South and East China Seas and the ASEAN straits — is seen by the PRC, almost separately from the global mission, as a necessity to safeguard its trade and access to resources. But to translate this into an effective denial (or threat of denial) of these near-oceans to other trading nations — a strategy becoming known as “anti-access and area denial (A2/AD)” — forces the PRC to face the question: how does it envision the overall management of the oceans?
Does it, for example, envisage the end of the “freedom of the seas”?
Does it envisage ending merely the freedom of some seas? And if so, does it expect that other states, also dependent on those seaways, to merely acquiesce, or to be forced into a position of submission to the PRC’s pre-eminence?
And can it expect to see the PRC “cherry-picking” certain oceanic rights and dominance while leaving the rest of the world’s oceans without control? What interest would the US, for example, have in maintaining global oceanic freedoms of navigation if the PRC controlled certain key maritime choke points and waterways — while enforcing a complementary Air Identification Zones (AIZs) — over the South China and East China seas? The PRC has already imposed (or at least attempted) an AIZ over the East China Sea and should be expected to attempt to impose such a limitation on the freedom of the skies over the South China Sea in the near future.
Clearly, global maritime dominance yields overriding returns in terms of wealth and power. It was so for Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and for the US. Why should not the PRC seek the same rewards? The answer, of course, is that, for the PRC to assume global economic pre-eminence, it must also seek global maritime dominance. But what does that require of China?
Firstly, it requires a philosophy similar to that which evolved, principally, under Britain and then the US, which institutionalized freedom of the seas. Dominance of the world’s oceans is too costly and difficult to enforce absent the concept of a free global maritime commons. Ensuring that maritime trade enhances both sides of the equation — both trading partners — is the essential fundamental.
This implies that the major powers have a commensurately major stake in the process, which includes stabilization of the trading states. For the PRC to participate in this process, it would need to be committed to force projection on a scale far greater than presently envisaged. For now, it has secured real dominion — A2/AD to external navies — over the oceans for about 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland, largely because of its land-based (rather than its ocean-based) capabilities. Certainly, the nascent People’s Liberation Army- Navy (PLAN) carrier battle group development gives it a capability to project carrier-based air power out to that 2,000 km barrier, from which it can reach still further into what had been the US zone of maritime dominance. [The US conversely, can safely, at present, project carrier air power to the 2,000 km line, but that does not enable it to deliver air power on to the Continent. Thus, carrier battle groups are of critical wartime value to the PLAN while of declining value to the US Navy in this scenario.]
Still, this is insufficient as a nexus for a PRC global maritime strategy.
For the PRC to dominate the ocean ways (as it did in the early 15th Century, but then at a time without serious competition), it would need far more comprehensive thinking than is now evident. It would need a Chinese equivalent of Commodore Alfred Thayer Mahan1. And it will need this thinking to be able to rationalize how a heartland, continental power can also become a global maritime power. Again, we have not seen this phenomenon since the unchallenged maritime projections of China’s Adm. Zheng He, in the 15th Century. The PRC may already have such an articulated grand strategy for global projection, and the outside world has yet to know of it. That is the unknown at this stage.
But if the PRC is lacking an holistic maritime strategy, then so is the West lacking an understanding of how to respond to the PRC. Can it bring the PRC into the global maritime commons — truly understanding and embracing the freedom of the seas — or must it devise strategies to contain the PRC?
If the PRC needs to begin clean-sheet planning to devise the maritime strategies to shape its entire economic framework — a true challenge for a continentally-oriented power — then so, too, do its maritime neighbors, including the North American and South East Asian and Indo-Pacific states need to re-think their alliances, their technologies, and their priorities to ensure the outcomes they desire.
1. Mahan, Alfred Thayer: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783. Published in the US in 1890. Plus other writings by Mahan.
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.
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