Tag Archives: China

A Proposed Framework for Analysis of Chinese Naval Modernization


Fantasy or foresight?

There are two extremes in public discourse over China and the ambitious naval modernization campaign that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has undertaken over the last two decades. On one hand, China is often presented as an existential threat whose massive naval build-up in both weapon quantity and quality, coupled with a newly aggressive foreign policy, makes it poised to directly challenge U.S. dominance of the high seas and hegemony in the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, China is portrayed as a rational major player within an interlinked global economic system, for which conflict with the U.S. or other regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan, would be unthinkable and ruinous. Regardless of which depiction is more representative of reality, in an era of impending defense cutbacks, budget battles of the near future will repeatedly reference Chinese naval modernization as the driving justification to buy, develop, or retain all sorts of weapons and capabilities.

What has really been missing from much of the public debate over the Chinese navy is a holistic analytic framework to aid understanding of the potential impact of China’s burgeoning capabilities in a Sino-American conflict. This would be done through a better understanding of Chinese intentions in terms of its doctrine and both foreign and domestic policies. Those policies are not necessarily aligned. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes’ Red Star over the Pacific discusses these issues, but their careful review of the evolution of Chinese naval strategy is not mirrored in discussions of China’s in the blogosphere. A focus on Chinese naval weapons system developments (the latest unveiling of a new Chinese ship, plane, missile, etc) can lead to both hysteria and conflicting calls for action. For instance, while the DF-21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile could potentially be a game-changing weapon impacting how war at sea will be fought in the future, it has yet to be fielded. However, some critics have already used its development to argue for the elimination of carriers and large surface combatants (because they are now potentially vulnerable), while others see its development as evidence of malign Chinese intent that justifies an American naval revitalization – presumably achieved by building many more large surface combatants.

A holistic analytic framework would assess 1) The elements of Chinese efforts comprising what is now commonly referred to as “Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, 2) the “quantity and readiness” of Chinese maritime power, and 3) Chinese strategy and policy. These factors form a three-legged stool of sorts, all of which must be in place for the argument to rest that China has the ability and intent to do harm to U.S. forces at sea, and therefore a U.S. naval expansion designed to counter China is merited (rather than one to ensure the U.S. Navy has the combat capability to meet US foreign policy objectives around the world).


• Chinese developments in the cyber domain are often cited as significant threats to U.S. naval operations. These threats range from jamming U.S. satellite and wireless communications networks, disrupting communications and preventing the means for effective Command and Control (C2), to cyber attacks on U.S. information technology, crippling dependent American C2 systems. Is China capable of executing cyber attacks that can cripple U.S. combat operations afloat?
• China has made a significant effort to build and buy a variety of the most modern and capable naval and air platforms currently available. These include new submarines, ships, and airplanes. Are these qualitatively superior to their American counterparts?
• China is also acquiring a variety of cutting edge high-end anti-ship cruise missiles and the already noted DF-21. Will these make it impossible for an afloat task force in its current incarnation to operate at sea in the Western Pacific as the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to? Will these prove too much for the current generation of American countermeasures?


How much does this matter?


• While all the new weapons mentioned above present an abstract threat to U.S. naval forces in the sense that they seem extremely capable and represent the cutting edge of technology, are they now or will they ever exist in large enough numbers to present an actual threat to U.S. Navy operations?
• In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the Chinese wouldn’t necessarily need numerical superiority over the U.S. force assembled in response, but how much capability would they need to bring to the fight in order to accomplish the mission? Regardless of how much “quality” navy they bring, how much “quantity” does China need before the balance tips in their favor?
• While all this new technology might be highly capable, Can Chinese forces effectively use it to maximum effect? Can they maintain this equipment? Do they have the logistics and infrastructure to support fielding it in combat?
• Are Chinese efforts towards cyber dominance integrated with their improvements in more conventional naval weapons and capabilities?

Strategy and Policy:

• Why are the Chinese pursuing a naval build-up? Is it driven by a bureaucratic impulse of the PLAN, a nationalist desire to be the regional hegemon, or the result of what China perceives as external security threats by the U.S. or other regional powers?
• What would drive China towards attempting a military takeover of Taiwan? Have they figured out how they would actually fight with the navy they have built?
• Does Chinese maritime strategy reflect the same principles as those of the U.S. Navy’s, in which maritime forces are important because they are the critical enablers for power projection across the globe, or do they simply represent an expansion of land power?

There are many conflicting answers to these questions, pointing towards many different potential conclusions. There is no simple answer as to whether Chinese naval modernization represents a grave threat to U.S. interests or what that means to the U.S. Navy’s acquisition efforts. Regardless, the need for deep and sustained analysis of China is merited and should be a high priority. In the mean time, one should be wary of simplistic analysis using the latest splashy announcement of a new Chinese ship/plane/missile to justify a particular course of action, particularly when linked to future defense acquisition strategies (Build more ships! Build less ships! Shift focus to/from carriers/amphibs/fighter jets/subs/SOF/unmanned systems/cyber!) Chinese capabilities and intentions need to be understood in their totality before driving shifts in U.S. defense policy.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAVstaff. He has previously served as at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. 

Procuring Maritime Leverage

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, assessing the historical, contemporary, and future relationship between the Royal Navy and the nation. Amongst the discussions that took place was one chaired by the former First Sea Lord concerning the issue of construction and procurement, in particular the ability of Britain’s shipbuilding industry to meet the requirements of the RN and at what cost. The UK still produces some of the most technologically sophisticated warships and weapons systems in the world, as the Type-45 destroyers are testament to. Yet, they increasingly come at a premium at odds with the current weak state of the country’s economy and an austere government that has instigated huge cuts to its armed forces, particularly its navy, following 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The rationalisation of Britain’s defence industry from decades of mergers and takeovers and the rise of monopolistic monoliths like BAE Systems do not help, with a lack of domestic competition for national defence contracts that might otherwise lower prices. Still, a major issue lies in the decreasing numbers and frequency of warship orders, and the higher cost per unit this inevitably produces. We’ve already seen Britain outsourcing certain shipbuilding capabilities, with four new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers ordered from South Korea in February of this year, and it now seems unlikely that another tanker will be produced in the UK again for the RFA, at least in the short to medium-term future, as those skills are lost from its workforce. The question is where Britain draws the line. Does the UK and RN need to make a firm decision as to what industrial capacity it should safeguard in its national strategic interest, such as nuclear submarine construction, and what could be procured from overseas without loosing too much operational capability? Smaller patrol craft and minesweepers perhaps? To do so could produce a more affordable, sustainable navy, and abate the continuous reduction in numbers.

The UK’s next generation of fleet tankers will be built in South Korean not British shipyards

As a historian who studies the post-Second World War development of colonial naval forces into sovereign Commonwealth navies, this issue to me highlights a fascinating shift in strategic-economic relations that raises questions and concerns in areas of geopolitical uncertainty. For several decades, the vast majority of the world’s arms, particularly more technologically-sophisticated warships, came from the same small group of producers located in the traditional ‘First World’. The underdeveloped industries of post-colonial countries, a hangover from imperial policies to turn colonial economies into primarily suppliers of raw materials for the metropole’s industry, meant that they were often continuingly dependent on the former ‘imperial motherland’ to supply them with equipment for their nascent armed forces, subsidised by development aid packages. This was particularly the case in countries that didn’t wish to align themselves in the bi-polar international system of the Cold War, such as initially India. Countries like Britain derived not only economic benefits from such a relationship, including offloading its outdated and surplus warships, but political and strategic ones too from being able to shape the composition and capabilities of such beneficiaries to complement its own designs for ‘Commonwealth Defence’. India recognised the undesirableness of such a situation, and has made a concerted effort to overhaul its shipbuilding industry over the last fifty years, embarking upon ambitious indigenous construction programmes, including recently Shivalik-class stealth frigates and Vikrant-class aircraft carriers. Other formerly ‘developing’ countries, most notably China, also now have impressive manufacturing capabilities. With that comes opportunities for export, and as the industrial capacity of established producers in the West declines and is surpassed by the more-competitive emerging economies of the East, new defence agreements will be forged between untraditional partners. The link between economic and politico-strategic influence is intrinsic, and as countries such as Britain were once able to use naval procurement as leverage and a way of furthering their own interests, new producers such as China and India can be expected to do the same. This could lead to the creation of new strategic alliances and increased uncertainty in regions of escalating maritime tension and instability, with potentially frightening consequences for all.

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes research on nineteenth and twentieth century naval history.

Thinking About Prevention, Pt. 1


How to keep the missiles in their tubes?

The panel debate last month at the Center for Naval Policy on U.S. strategy in the Asia Pacific helped start a discussion on potential strategies and the tools each would require. I served up my initial thoughts here.

As I noted, one of the difficulties in balancing the ends, ways, and means in any strategy designed to win an armed conflict is that the tools to win are not necessarily those that can help prevent the conflict from erupting in the first place, or to keep a conflict from escalating.


As many have remarked, neither the U.S. nor China would benefit from a protracted conflict between the two powerhouses. The 50-year stand-off between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that preceded it had its own cold logic of prevention derived from the balance of nuclear first- and second-strike capabilities. MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction as the calculus was known, did two things. First, it helped prevent direct conflict between the two belligerents, knowing that unchecked escalation could lead to a war of unlimited aims and means, and ultimately mutual destruction. For this reason both sides took great pains to disguise active participation of their combatants in hostilities against the other, such as Russians in the Korean War. Second, if direct violence ever did flare between the two, MAD was there to act as a check to prevent it from becoming a war of unlimited means – to keep the conflict “conventional.”  

In many ways a similar check acts to keep sabre-rattling from becoming sabre-thrusting due to the intertwined interests of the U.S. and China. In this arrangement, the devastation swiftly wrought by a conflict would be economic, and the blast-radius global. So, in an effort to coin a term that I’m sure will become widely used, I give you Mutual Economic Obliteration – Worldwide, or MEOW.

Yet an oft-repeated fact is that the unprecedented levels of economic interdependence in Europe prior to World War I could not prevent that war’s outbreak. So it is today. Economics and rationality maximizing polices of nations can certainly help, but can not alone prevent a conflict in the event of a range of scenarios driven by nationalist passions, the self-interests of individuals, or just plain accident.  

An Ounce of Prevention

So how can the U.S. aid prevention in these cases? Nothing can completely eliminate the possibility of armed conflict, thus even the most pacifist of prudent nations retain militaries and self-defense forces, but there are steps available beyond economic co-dependence. These can be categorized as those steps taken to sow respect (often involving means useful in the event prevention fails) and those taken to enhance familiarity. I will explore some of the options available in the next post, but by no means have all of the answers. In an environment of fiscal restraint and a time of hard budgeting choices we can’t lose focus on the importance of trying to prevent conflicts as much as we prepare to win them. Financial resources, time, and creative energies are needed for both equally important endeavors.

Parallel Rocks

Civilian authorities spot a foreign fishing vessel trawling their nation’s territorial waters. The authorities move to intercept but are held at bay by the offending vessel’s government escorts. The scene: Gibraltar. The actors: The U.K. and Spain.

As readers of this blog know, stand-offs over fishing rights and territorial disputes have made a lot of news of late when they occur between China and its Asian neighbors. But they don’t happen solely in the Pacific.

The long-running territorial dispute between Spain and the U.K. over the famous gateway to the Mediterranean has grabbed headlines locally in recent weeks as Spanish trawlers have twice fished in Gibraltar’s territorial waters while Spanish Civil Guardia vessels escorted the vessels.

According to the BBC, in the latest incident four police vessels and a British Royal Navy patrol boat intercepted a single trawler but did not attempt to board the vessel as it was shadowed by two Civil Guardia vessels. Spokesman for the Royal Gibraltar Police, Richard Ullger, said “we avoid active enforcement because it could provoke an incident.” Yet the captain of the Spanish trawler, Francisco Gomez, highlighted the tenseness of the confrontation claiming the vessels were so close that some of the hulls scraped each other. After 6 hours the vessel left. The Royal Gibraltar Police will issue a court summons for the crew, but it is not expected that they will appear in court.

In light of the incident a Member of the European Parliament for Gibraltar, Julie Girling warned, “What we don’t want in Gibraltar is a situation like the Falklands: there seem to be disturbing parallels in attempts to damage the livelihoods of Gibraltar’s fishermen.”

These are not The Rocks you’re looking for

Girling was of course referring to the current situation in the Falkland’s, not the situation preceding the 1982 war. Yet a comparison between Gibraltar, the Falklands (then and now), and the South China Sea yields interesting insights.

In all three locales, resources contained therein play a role in pushing confrontation. In the South China Sea, rich fishing banks and oil exploration are primary causes for the scramble for territory. In Gibraltar, resources are not really the prize (besides for the local small-scale fishing operations) – the fishing expeditions merely provide a convenient means for pushing the larger territorial claim. Resources didn’t play much part sparking the Falklands War, but today many believe the resurgence of Argentine clamor for the islands is due to the potential oil reserves and fishing that invigorated the islands since the war. Today, the U.K. claims harassment of its own boats in Falklands water by Argentine coast guard vessels.

With regards to both the Chinese and Spanish fishing vessels, one of the more interesting questions is whether it is fishermen or government officials who are the driving force for journeys into contested waters. Are the maritime officials simply assisting their citizens in pursuit of excellent fishing grounds, or are they providing safety to vessels recruited and sent forward in calculated moves? How high in the government do such sensitive expeditions need approval?

The strategic value of these bits of territory also plays a role in their attraction. Gibraltar, dominating the chokepoint between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, also oversees much traffic that heads through the Suez Canal. Islands in the South China Sea sit astride trade routes vital for many economies, and can serve as forward operating bases or logistics and communications relays. The only exception is the Falklands, despite one Argentine paper’s claim at the time of the war that the islands were “strategically important because they were on a direct maritime route to India.”

Another Rock with a contested past

One of the most important distinctions between the South China Sea and the other two instances is that of self-determination. On the issue of sovereign control of territory, international law, international institutions, and disinterested intentional sentiment routinely come down on the side of the principle of self-determination. In Gibraltar the locals have voted in referendums for continued British rule (by 98.9% in 2002). The British meanwhile say they are open to a UN-sponsored referendum in the Falklands, where a similar result is likely, and tellingly it’s an offer the Argentines ignore. This makes it hard for Argentina or Spain to rally legal or global public opinion to their side. The difference for the South China Sea islands is that by and large there are no locals. Most of the bits of territory are tiny non self-sustainable pieces of rock or submerged reef, making resolution harder.

Of these points of conflict, the only that so far turned into a shooting war in modern times was the Falklands. In that case the dictatorship generated a nationalist distraction from a plummeting economy. As smarter people than me have said, this is one good reason no one should wish for the Chinese economy to slow precipitously. While Spain and Argentina today are in their own economic messes, both have the safety valve and check on their actions of democracy.

The good news is that the most common denominator in all of these cases is at least lip service towards peaceful resolution. Despite the nationalist push for the Falklands, President Cristina Kirchner has stated she will obtain the islands only through peaceful means. Foreign ministers of Spain and Britain met Tuesday and urged a peaceful resolution to the fishing issue. In Cambodia the defense secretaries of China and Philippines did the same on the same day.

One final thought. All of this shows the importance of coastal patrol forces, including those administered by civilian agencies, and that they can be used for either defensive or offensive strategic-level maneuvers. Interesting then to see that the Chinese ship construction buildup is not in naval forces alone – the Chinese Maritime Surveillance agency will commission 36 cutters in the next 3 years. (h/t CGblog)