Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)

A Question of Time: Improving Taiwan’s Maritime Deterrence Posture

The following essay is adapted from a report published by George Mason University’s Center for Security Policy Studies: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture

By Joe Petrucelli

Just last month two U.S. Navy warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait, reminding the world that the status of Taiwan remains contested and unresolved. Although China prefers to use peaceful means to achieve unification, it has not taken the possibility of force off the table. Accordingly, Taiwan remains one of the few states to endure the plausible risk of military invasion.

After visiting Taiwan to study this problem, a team of researchers, including the author, recently released a report advocating for a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s conventional deterrence posture. Among our recommendations, we call for Taiwan’s navy to change its current acquisition priorities and embrace an unconventional-asymmetric doctrine of sea denial.

We suggest this shift in maritime strategy because of what we termed Taiwan’s deterrence trilemma. At a strategic level, Taiwan must simultaneously accomplish three goals that exist in tension with each other:  

  • It must counter China’s grey zone challenges, which means Taiwan must project symbolic strength across its airspace and territorial waters;
  • It must raise the costs of invasion, which means it needs forces that can prolong any conflict and inflict unacceptable losses on the invaders; and
  • It must do both of these things in a resource-constrained environment defined by a general unwillingness to significantly increase defense spending

At least in the near term, a military invasion remains unlikely since the PLA faces a number of obstacles that complicate its ability to mount a successful invasion. Nonetheless, time is on China’s side and Taiwan’s naval doctrine and force posture remain misaligned. Although Taiwan has revised its strategy to emphasize multi-domain, asymmetric deterrence, it remains focused on purchasing high-end, high-capability systems such as the F-35B fighter, Aegis-like destroyers and diesel submarines, the “darlings of their service chiefs.” 

We argue that Taiwan should enhance its deterrence posture by adopting a more coherent and holistic approach. Specifically, we recommend that it adopt an elastic denial-in-defense strategy, which will consist of three core elements:

  • Accept risk in the grey zone. Grey zone aggression does not constitute an existential threat allowing Taiwan to rebalance its force to maintain “just enough” capability to push back against grey zone challenges, such sufficient naval strength to prevent and intercept unwanted excursions into Taiwanese waters;
  • Prioritize denial operations. Specifically, divest as many costly, high-tech platforms as possible so as to invest in large numbers of relatively low-cost, counter-invasion capabilities. This would raise the cost associated with bringing a hostile force close to Taiwan’s shores; and
  • Invest in popular resistance. The prospect of waging a prolonged insurgency will likely deter China’s leadership far more than the threat of fighting a relatively small, conventional force.

We are not the first to propose shifting to an asymmetric maritime force to deny China use of the seas as an invasion corridor. Numerous reports and analyses have suggested specific maritime platforms Taiwan should acquire to execute a sea denial strategy, such as fast missile boats, semi-submersibles, mini-submarines, mines, and coastal defense cruise missiles. We entirely agree with these recommendations and note that to date, despite talk of an asymmetric strategy, Taiwan has made only marginal changes. For example, while it has modestly increased its inventory of missile boats and anti-ship cruise missiles, Taiwan’s navy remains anchored around a relatively small and therefore vulnerable inventory of high-end platforms. 

The political reality is that Taiwan’s navy faces major resource constraints and so must make difficult choices. Accordingly, Taiwan should defer its high-profile procurement priorities, especially the Aegis-like destroyer and the Indigenous Diesel Submarine (IDS). These are technically challenging programs, especially given Taiwan’s lack of experience building similar platforms. Additionally, they are expensive enough that Taiwan will not be able to field them in large numbers and ultimately remain vulnerable to Chinese long-range strike and anti-access weapons systems. Taiwan’s current naval fleet, although aged, is sufficient to “show the flag” and resist grey-zone aggression for the near future. Instead of these planned procurements, Taiwan should significantly increase the numbers of low-cost, lethal platforms, even at the expense of other planned procurements.

These lower cost platforms, by the larger numbers procured, complicate adversary targeting and improve their force-level survivability against PLA strike capabilities. Taiwan should start by fielding a larger fleet than currently envisioned of its stealthy Tuo Jiang missile corvette and build on the lessons learned from these small corvettes to field a future small frigate. Both can fulfill peacetime missions but be built in large enough numbers to possibly survive in a wartime environment. By delaying the more ambitious destroyer and IDS programs and starting with smaller, less expensive projects, Taiwan can best prioritize limited resources.

This incremental approach also helps develop relevant technical capability, so that potential future submarine and large surface combatant programs are less technically risky when it becomes fiscally and strategically appropriate to build them. The immediate savings from delaying the destroyer and IDS programs can be diverted into the sea denial platforms that Taiwan needs now, ranging from the small frigate discussed above to even smaller missile boats, mini-subs and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.

Moreover, Taiwan should eliminate its entire amphibious force. Bluntly speaking, Taiwan’s amphibious assault ships are strategically unnecessary as they are not immediately useful for confronting limited challenges to Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty or other “grey zone” aggression. They also have no ability to counter a cross-strait invasion. Rather than procure expensive amphibious assault ships and maintain aging landing craft, which generate sizable sustainment costs, Taiwan should retire this entire force. It can then shift these savings into further investments in counter-invasion capabilities.

Because Taiwan’s Marine Corps would be losing its sealift, it should be rebranded as Taiwan’s premier counter-amphibious force so as to fill a gap between the navy’s sea denial role and the army’s ground denial mission. Specifically, it would specialize in defending possible landing zones with mines and spread out hard points in addition to engaging landing craft with dispersed, near-shore weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles.

These proposals to transform Taiwan’s naval strategy and procurement plans would produce a force capable of waging a sea denial campaign against a conventionally superior opponent, tailored to the specific threat of a cross-Strait invasion. The changes in naval force structure would be mirrored throughout Taiwan’s armed forces, to include a reduction in army ground strength, the termination of plans to procure F-35B fighters, and accelerated procurement of similar asymmetric capabilities. To invest in popular resistance, we recommend transforming Taiwan’s two-million-man Reserve Force into a Territorial Defense Force prepared to conduct a lengthy insurgency campaign. By abandoning plans for a decisive battle and shifting to a posture that increases invasion costs and prevents a quick victory, Taiwan can better deter China.

Read about these recommendations and more in the full report: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture.

Joe Petrucelli is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a currently mobilized U.S. Navy reserve officer. The analysis and opinions expressed here are his alone and they do not represent those of the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Tuo Jiang-class missile boat in service with the Taiwanese Navy. (Defense Ministry of Taiwan)

Assessing the Military Balance in the Western Pacific with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

By Cris Lee

CIMSEC was pleased to be joined by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Professor Yoshihara is a long-time expert and well-published author on Asian security topics, Chinese naval capabilities, and Chinese maritime strategy. We are interested in his thoughts on recent security trends and what kind of calculus should be taken into account when analyzing the military balance in the Western Pacific.

Cris Lee: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Yoshihara. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and I’ve been at CSBA since 2017. I study Chinese military strategy and doctrine, Chinese maritime strategy, Asian security affairs, the overall military balance in Asia, and U.S. maritime strategy in Asia.

Before joining CSBA, I was the inaugural John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College. As an endowed chair, I helped to support research on—and the teaching of—all things Asia at the war college. I was also a professor of strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College, where I taught strategy for over a decade.

I’ve been looking at Chinese military and defense issues since the late 1990s, so this is an area of great interest to me. It’s a real pleasure to join you today.

Cris Lee: Thank you. Dr. Yoshihara, you’ve studied Chinese military and maritime issues from the beginning of what we could call a distinct and recent modernization period that goes on to this day. You’ve also observed in your writings that there needs to be an understanding in fundamentals, and how to understand these changes through certain analytical perspectives.

Could you introduce us to what you think we should understand when understanding the military balance in the Pacific, and when measuring up American maritime capacity in the Pacific versus that of the Chinese?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think it’s very important to take into account a variety of factors. The first variable is the bilateral naval balance between China and the United States. The Sino-U.S. naval balance, in part, involves surface ships, submarines, naval aviation units, the combat logistics fleet, and so forth on both sides. But, this does not fully capture the balance. China also possesses other elements of seapower.

China’s shore-based military power is integral to this overall balance, including: shore-based aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and shore-based cruise and ballistic missile forces. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and the longer-range DF-26, can reportedly strike large surface combatants at great distances. These land-based capabilities enable China to impose its will on its adversaries at sea by launching striking power from the Chinese mainland.

I think it’s worth thinking through the operational scenarios, particularly for U.S. naval forces, should the United States decide to intervene on behalf of its regional allies and friends, including Japan and Taiwan. It’s worth thinking through contingencies in which U.S. naval forces could come under withering firepower from sea and from ashore.

But, the military balance still represents only a partial picture. We have to consider the non-military implements of Chinese military power. The China Coast Guard—the so-called “white hulls”—constitutes a frontline force in the maritime domain. China’s maritime militia is also a critical component of its first line of defense. It’s thus important to think about the military and the non-military balance, and to think about how they mesh together in order to fully comprehend the overall balance.

When considering the military balance, we also have to think more broadly about the fundamental asymmetries between a local power and a global power. The United States is a global power that must defend its interests globally. It therefore needs a global navy that conducts a whole host of missions worldwide. In practice, only a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. Navy is ready for action in Asia. The rule of thumb is that the U.S. Navy deploys a third of its forces at any given time, owing to maintenance and workup cycles. Of that third, only a portion of those forces is in Asia at any given time while the rest of the fleet is operating elsewhere around the globe. By contrast, China, the local power, can devote the bulk of its forces in its own backyard. I think this asymmetry puts the naval balance in perspective.

However, another asymmetry—the role of allies and friends—works in favor of the United States. Washington boasts many high-quality, like-minded maritime allies around the world. Think about Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. Extra-regional powers, including India and even Britain and France, are also turning their attention to the Western Pacific. The naval balance looks very different when considered in the context of coalitions. But, this by no means suggests that we can take our allies for granted. On the contrary, we need to continue to cultivate close operational ties with our allies to maintain our collective competitive edge.  

Cris Lee: Starting with the 1990s and going to the late 2010s you studied the Chinese Navy which encompasses essentially the bulk of their present period of modernization. How far has the Chinese Navy come in terms of capacity and what they can do now, and how this has affected the military balance?

Toshi Yoshihara: What we’ve witnessed, particularly over the past 10-15 years, is an extraordinary transformation of the Chinese Navy. China already has the largest navy in Asia. This has been the case for quite a few years. Some earlier estimates predicted that the Chinese Navy will be the largest navy in the world by 2020 and that, by 2020, it will be the second-most capable expeditionary force, second only to the U.S. Navy. More recent estimates have concluded that the Chinese Navy has already surpassed the U.S. Navy in size.  

By my own calculations, in 2007, China had about seven surface combatants that could be considered modern by western standards. By 2017, that number jumped to around 80. By the end of 2018, based on my calculations, China could have more than 90 modern surface combatants. This represents a remarkable shift in the naval balance. Given the inherently capital-intensive nature of navies, this massive buildup not only reflects China’s ability and willingness to pour resources into seapower, but it also reflects a long-term strategic will to the seas.

From a historical perspective, this kind of buildup happens infrequently. Its infrequency can be measured in generational terms. Comparable frenzied naval buildups took place prior to both world wars. Historically, when these buildups have occurred, they have preceded great power competitions and global wars. We thus have to pay close attention to China’s remarkable transformation .

It is not just the Chinese Navy. China’s maritime law enforcement fleet is also the largest in Asia. In fact, it is larger than all of the other Asian maritime law enforcement fleets combined. And China’s fleet is still growing.

From an operational perspective, China has modernized its navy, in part, to fight the U.S. Navy in a war at sea. The Chinese Navy’s heavy focus on anti-surface warfare and the development of a large family of long-range anti-ship missiles are powerful indicators. As Admiral Harry Harris, the former commander of Pacific Command, noted in congressional testimony, China is “outsticking” U.S. forces, meaning that Chinese anti-ship missiles far outrange those of their American counterparts. In other words, Chinese missile salvos could reach our forces well before we can get within range to hit back.

At the same time, it’s not just hardware. The Chinese Navy has been honing its skills as an expeditionary force. China has conducted uninterrupted naval operations in the Indian Ocean for a decade, making it a legitimate Indian Ocean power. It now has a base in Djibouti, allowing China to have a permanent presence in a region that was once the exclusive preserve of Western seapower. Over the past ten years, the Chinese Navy has dispatched flotillas to “break through” the first island chain—the transnational archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia—into the open waters of the Pacific on a regular basis. These sorties have demonstrably enhanced the tactical proficiency of Chinese naval forces.

It was not so long ago that a U.S. surface combatant could transit the entire length of the South China Sea without running into a Chinese counterpart. Today, a U.S. warship steaming through the South China Sea would just as likely be met and trailed on a continuous basis by modern Chines surface combatants, some of them superior to our warships in anti-surface warfare. This is the new normal. This is something we have to come to terms with.

Cris Lee: With regard to that evolved capacity, how do you think perspectives have changed on the Chinese Navy, particularly those of its peers and the U.S.?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think our attitudes have changed quite a bit as a result of China’s naval transformation. Let me take you back to the 1990s. In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, condescension characterized our views of the Chinese Navy. A running joke that could be heard in the hallways of Washington think tanks was that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be akin to “a million-man swim.” This evocative image of a million-man swim reflected America’s patronizing views of the Chinese military at the time. It was widely assumed that the Chinese Navy was not even a match against the Taiwanese Navy, much less against Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Moreover, some asserted that China would struggle to become a regional navy well into the early decades of the 21st century.  

Today, it is no longer controversial to describe China as a serious seapower. It is widely accepted that China is a genuine maritime power capable of challenging the United States and its interests in Asia. Indeed, by many non-military measures, China is already a leading maritime power. Its merchant fleet and fishing fleet are already among the largest, if not the largest, in the world. Its sprawling and massive port system along the mainland coast has surpassed the world’s leading ports, such as those in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, a kind of smugness still persists. We still come across inapt tactical comparisons between U.S. and Chinese forces, a misplaced sense of our operational virtuosity at sea, and musty assumptions about our ability to command the global commons and about our ability to stay ahead in the competition. What these assessments miss, in my view, is the dynamic character of the rivalry. China will pose a far more complex set of challenges at sea than is generally assumed. A clear-cut conflict with a discernible beginning, middle, and end—during which the United States can amass leisurely its military power for a decisive operation—is not the most likely scenario. China will likely employ a mix of military and non-military means in the twilight between peace and war. These so-called gray-zone tactics are designed precisely to constrain, or preclude altogether, our ability to employ our military capabilities and to offset our technological and operational superiority. Side-by-side comparisons of individual naval platforms and comforting narratives about how many more carriers we have compared to the Chinese are at best simplistic, if not misleading.    

Cris Lee: So this kind of smugness, does it reflect an old lineage of thinking that involves assumed U.S. maritime supremacy? How does that kind of assumed supremacy continue to affect American maritime approaches for the Pacific? What problems arise because of that?

Toshi Yoshihara: We need to strike a balance between underestimating and overestimating China. Each fallacy creates its own set of analytical problems. Underestimation certifies institutional inertia and deepens our comfort with the status quo. The siren song of our accustomed supremacy at sea is really hard to resist. The logic goes like this: since we’ve been unbeatable following the Soviet Union’s collapse, our presumption is that this dominance will stretch indefinitely into the future.

The temptation to rest on our laurels is risky. It might mean that we won’t act fast enough in the face of the China challenge. It might mean that we won’t be able to resource our Navy and our sister services enough to meet the threat. Such complacency might mean that we could be surprised at the tactical and strategic levels. Indeed, the Chinese have consistently sprung surprises on us with their many technical and tactical developments.

Overestimation creates its own set of analytical dysfunctions. The storyline goes like this: “China’s going to be too strong and there’s nothing we can do about it. We might as well learn to live with a very powerful China. To do so, we need to accommodate China’s interests and ambitions now. We should cut a deal and reach a grand bargain with China before its too late such that China becomes so strong that it can dictate terms to us and our allies.” This is a kind of preemptive surrender.  

These polarized views and their policy implications are not helpful. Rather, we need to think productively about China in ways that neither downplay its strengths and its ability to challenge the United States at sea nor overlook some of its structural weaknesses.

Cris Lee: Have you seen these perspectives impact the Pacific in recent times and how a rising China’s changing capabilities have impacted policy?

Toshi Yoshihara: A key danger is the growing mismatch between American commitments and resources. When our resources are inadequate to meet our commitments to defend Asia, we have a situation akin to bluff. The bigger the gap, the bigger the bluff waiting to be called by our adversaries.

A related danger is the declining confidence among our allies and friends about the credibility of our commitments. If our allies and friends begin to doubt our security commitments to the region, they may begin to make their own calculations, pursue their own independent policies, and perhaps even cut their own separate deals with China, accommodating it or bandwagoning with it. Some may embark on an independent strategic path, such as going nuclear. Many of our Asian partners and friends, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, are all latent nuclear powers.  

There is still an opportunity to restore balance to our commitments and resources. But time is running short.

Cris Lee: I imagine that it would be really difficult to make friends if they view our commitments as wavering in the Pacific.

Toshi Yoshihara: This commitment-resource gap has wide-ranging ramfications beyond the military competition. Our diplomacy, for example, is only as credible as the hard power that underwrites that diplomacy. A growing gap may erode our ability to persuade our Asian allies to act in the best interests of the region. This gap thus has as much to do with the larger diplomatic-political competition that is unfolding in Asia today as it does with the naval rivalry.

Cris Lee: What are the most important aspects that need to be tackled in order for the U.S. to retain its traditional maritime advantages in the Asia-Pacific? What policies and ideas could be pursued to that end?

Toshi Yoshihara: Rather than delving into the operational and tactical aspects of the competition, let me outline some of the larger prerequisites for strategic success.

First, we need to acknowledge that we face a competent, resourceful, and determined competitor. China’s rise as a seapower has already challenged our cherished beliefs and deeply-embedded assumptions about U.S. naval prowess that have persisted over the past three decades. It will—or ought to—force us to think about scenarios that we have not had to seriously ponder since the end of the Cold War. Conditions that we took for granted, such as uncontested command of the seas, are likely things of the past. Indeed, we need to think hard about a future in which a serious contest for sea control could take place in multiple theaters and across different operational domains at the same.

Second, in this far more competitive strategic environment, we need to get reacquainted with risk as an integral component of our statecraft. For too long, risk aversion characterized our calculus. We feared taking actions that might provoke China. We thought risk was, well, risky. This aversion to risk in turn fostered timidity, paralyzed decision making, and encouraged inaction. China, for its part, took calculated risks, pursued its ambitions, and changed facts on the ground in a resistance-free environment. Just look at China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping took a calculated risk—at first not knowing what the Obama administration would do in response—and it paid off. We need to reciprocate Chinese risk-taking. Indeed, we need to do more to impose risk on China in the maritime domain and other areas of statecraft. Only when we approach risk as a normal way of doing business, just as the Chinese have treated risk, can we stay competitive.    

Third, we need to think more productively about the strengths and weaknesses on each side and exploit them to our advantage. They need not be strictly material. The intangibles matter, too. To leverage our inherent strengths, we need to revisit basic principles. We need to return to—and embrace anew—our Navy’s raison detre: to fight and win wars at sea. That is the foundational purpose of our naval power. We need to tap into our enduring strategic traditions that appeal to our way of warfare at sea. That means, in part, restoring our offensive-mindedness at sea and the derring-do that has been the hallmark of our Navy. The surface fleet’s concept of distributed lethality and its implementation are important initiatives in this context.

On the flip side, we need to assess enduring Chinese weaknesses. What can we do to take advantage of those weaknesses? Are there ways that we can tap into enduring Chinese fears to shore up deterrence? In reading the Chinese literature, I have come across repeated references to a longstanding Chinese psychological fear: the fear of being closed off from the seas and of being encircled by a hostile coalition of maritime powers. It seems to me that we should do whatever we can to play up those fears. In this context, we should take a page from the Chinese themselves and adopt anti-access measures at sea that target these psychological fears.

Finally, we need to work with our allies. I think this is one of our true competitive strengths. Frontline states like Japan can impose all sorts of costs and risks on the Chinese. Japan’s Southwestern Islands, which stretch offshore from Kyushu to the northeast coast of Taiwan, could play host to formidable anti-access weaponry. A string of anti-access bubbles along those islands would make large parts of the East China Sea extremely hazardous for Chinese air and naval forces. Think about stretching this anti-access bubble down through Taiwan and down through the Philippines. We could have a very formidable defensive architecture that would give the Chinese serious indigestion in wartime. Should cross-strait deterrence fail, for example, the United States and its allies could open up a massive geographic front that entangles China in a series of peripheral fights, drawing Beijing’s attention away from the main target, Taiwan. The very possibility that a Chinese military operation could trigger such a horizontal escalation would go far to shore up deterrence. Favorable geography and well-armed allies can thus be fused to shift the terms of competition in our favor today and into the future.

Cris Lee: Before we take our final leave, could you describe your recent work and anything else you would like to share with our audience?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m very pleased to announce that the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific will be published in December 2018. This is a major revision of the first edition. About 70 percent of the content is new.  This partly reflects just how rapidly the Chinese Navy has developed since the first edition was published.

When the book came out in 2010, many of its arguments, including the idea that China is going to become a serious seapower, were greeted with skepticism, if not hostility. The critics implied that we were overinflating the threat. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we arguably didn’t go far enough in describing the Chinese military challenge in the maritime domain. Today, the notion that China will be a permanent factor in maritime Asia is more or less conventional wisdom.

In addition to capturing the rapid development of Chinese seapower, we frame our overall argument within the larger context of Chinese grand strategy. I’m very excited about this upcoming publication and I hope it will be well-received among colleagues, friends, and other analysts in the strategic community.

Cris Lee: Dr. Yoshihara, thank you so much for your time. This has definitely been a thought-provoking discussion.

Toshi Yoshihara: Thank you.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Before joining CSBA, he held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. He was also an affiliate member of the war college’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Dr. Yoshihara has served a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego; and the Strategy Department of the U.S. Air War College. He is co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, which has been listed on the Chief of Naval Operation’s Professional Reading Program since 2012. The second edition is forthcoming in December 2018. Translations of Red Star over the Pacific have been published in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S.F.S. from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

Cris Lee is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Featured Image: Chinese Type 055 destroyer (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Will the Revamped Xiangshan Forum Displace the Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Earlier this year, the author published an analysis comparing and contrasting the 2017 and 2018 Shangri-La Dialogues (SLD) in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes; and more importantly, surmising what message Beijing was trying to convey and assessing what the message portends for the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and the world.

The author posited that Beijing views the SLD as a confrontational international forum used by Washington and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value, but not the overwhelming need, to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept criticism in these forums as a natural outgrowth and accepted cost of its rise as a global power.

That said, Beijing may one day conclude with respect to opportunity cost that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the seemingly biased and fading SLD when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum (XF)? The regional forum is widely regarded in Beijing as an increasingly viable and desirable counter to the SLD. The forum can function as the security component to the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more significantly, an integral part of a strategic agenda (the Chinese Dream) to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one lacking dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect soon a resurgent, revitalized, and revamped XF after an unexpected and self-imposed one-year hiatus. The decision to temporarily suspend the XF is not clear. If indeed Beijing did decide to use the XF in the aforementioned manner, then the pause may be a deliberate structural reset to re-orient itself to a new role.  

None had to wait long. On 30 August, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that the China Association for Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies  will co-host the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum (BXF) in Beijing from 24-28 October, 2018. Therefore, it is useful to examine the “restated” goals and objectives and discuss what it may mean for America, the region, and the international community.  

Restated Goals and Objectives

The theme of this year’s forum is “building a new-type of security and partnership featuring equality, mutual trust, and win-win cooperation.” Participants include defense authorities, military leaders, representatives of international organizations, former military and civilian officials, and scholars from 79 countries. They will meet and discuss ideas for new approaches to international security governance, terrorism threats and countermeasures, prospects for maritime security cooperation, and United Nations peacekeeping operations. Participants will also exchange perspectives during various special sessions and panels on the new dynamics in Northeast Asian security, ways and means of addressing the security issues in the Middle East, military and security confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific, and artificial intelligence and the conduct of warfare. Beijing hopes the forum will “further strengthen strategic dialogue and communications, accumulate consensus, deepen practical cooperation, and find ways to jointly respond to global challenges and jointly maintain peace and stability.”

The theme of the previous 7th Xiangshan Forum held 11-13 October, 2016 was “building a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation.” Participants from around 60 countries discussed the role of militaries in global governance, responses to new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific through cooperation, including maritime security cooperation, and counterterrorism policy. Additional panel discussions included major power relations and global strategic structure, globalization versus deglobalization and the implications for international security, latest developments in terrorism and creative approaches to cooperation, and maritime crisis management and regional stability. Beijing had hoped the forum would “strengthen mutual trust, accumulate consensus, promote regional security cooperation, and jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”

All in all, the language and tone of this new forum is more assertive and forward-leaning than previous forums – reflective of a more confident and insistent China, who seems determined to move forward from Mao’s revolutionary legacy and Deng’s iconic dictum of “hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never ever claim leadership” and now to promote abroad “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era (Xi’s Thoughts).” The plenary and special session topics underscore Beijing’s aspiration to be a respected global leader who has a say (and sway) in world events and issues, and perhaps lay the groundwork to eventually displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation. If so, the forum is a convenient and opportune platform to offer developing countries an alternative economic and political choice of Chinese “benevolent” governance involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances (economic development with supposed political independence). In other words, developing countries in Africa, Central Asia, South Pacific, and South/Central Americas should take heed and carefully consider the Chinese model – a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that feels it does not have to make political accommodations to others.

Of note is the last panel topic on artificial intelligence. There has been plenty of reporting on robust Chinese investment in this emerging technology, particularly in the area of military applications. Some have even speculated that China has already surpassed the United States, and strongly urge Washington to make up for lost ground. If so, could this be Beijing trying to allay these growing concerns? China may be attempting to get ahead of the strategic issue by shaping and influencing international legal frameworks and accepted norms of behavior on the future development, deployment, and employment of artificial intelligence capabilities.

What to Expect

The BRI – Beijing’s trillion-dollar, transcontinental infrastructure enterprise to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing – needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics to guarantee the BRI’s continued expansion and future sustainment. The BXF is that security framework. The forum and the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) promote and advance a new global political, economic, and security order under Beijing’s terms. Together, they constitute a new Chinese strategic approach that calls for the balanced integration of interests. These include long-term overseas economic development and concurrent domestic security reforms intended to safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Hence, in the coming years, expect China to subtly undermine the SLD while incrementally building up the revamped BXF as evident by the new competing theme to that of the extant SLD’s theme of “building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among the region’s most important defense and security policymakers.” The scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. Beijing seems content for now to send a relatively lower rank delegation head to the SLD, limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

This hedging posture may transform over time to more of a balancing one that will directly challenge the SLD for regional preeminence. If so, Beijing will slowly draw down its participation in the SLD, while subtlety pulling away the other participants through a calibrated program of incentive (carrot) and intimidation (stick). First to go will be the regional countries already in China’s growing sphere of influence (Laos, Cambodia), and then other countries within region and the world, possibly similar to how Beijing picks off countries that formally recognize Taipei. Those that are contemplating withdrawal from the SLD may face increasingly forceful political and economic persuasion (coercion) to do so as part of a pressure campaign, while those that will continue to participate in the SLD will receive growing political and economic backlash as part of a retribution campaign. Countries saddled with BRI-related debts will face the most risk, and in time they may be given a stark binary choice – bend toward Beijing’s will or face economic consequences.

Beijing may also establish its own version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise to further advance the security component of the BRI. China and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states held the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (table-top) in Singapore on 2 August, with plans to hold a follow-on field exercise in China involving navies from all the participating countries later in October. If successful, Beijing may make this a recurring exercise and gradually expand its scope, nature, and extent of the exercise to eventually rival that of RIMPAC.

At the end of the day, the strategic conundrum for the United States will be whether or not to participate in the BXF if invited by China. There are two schools of thought on this matter.

Those in favor may argue non-participation would be a miscalculation. By not participating in the BXF, Washington would cede the strategic narrative and initiative to Beijing. Specifically, the United States would yield to China and like-minded nations a public platform to stake out their strategic positions unchallenged; and lose an opportunity to counter Chinese strategic messaging and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

Those not in favor may suggest that in the early years of the BRI, Washington policymakers faced political and economic pressures to join the ambitious Chinese infrastructure project over the worrying prospect of being left behind. Contrary to conventional wisdom at that time, the U.S. government resisted the clarion call and chose not to join. In hindsight, the decision was the correct call given the political and economic difficulties that have emerged from the project. The same logic and rationale should be applied to the BXF. Resist the strong temptation to join in the false hope of changing  or reforming the BXF from within, and instead challenge the forum by continuing to offer countries an alternative security framework (such as the SLD) to accompany the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) economic strategy.

Conclusion

In terms of great power relations Beijing views itself as a destined rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power. And both are seen as being interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global preeminence. In this competition the Chinese BRI and BXF and its opposing counterparts – the FOIP and SLD – are the preeminent and enduring platforms in these contested economic and security battlespaces, respectively. The victor of this great power competition will determine not only the future course of the Indo-Pacific, but perhaps also the world.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: Seventh Xiangshan Forum (South China Morning Post photo).