Though this quote comes from an Australian, it captures the sentiment of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea as expressed in a recent story on NPR. The alleged hijacking of Chinese fishing vessels by North Koreans wearing naval uniforms (first discussed on NextWar here) exposes the growing rift between these long-time partners. According to the NPR story, transparency between North Korea and China on important issues like the death of Kim Jong Il and North Korean nuclear tests has all but disappeared. Now, it appears that North Korean affronts to China on the high seas threaten popular support for the former by the latter.
Though the United States has long opposed the close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, it has also sought to use China both as a means to communicate intentions to North Korea and as a lever to turn the latter’s repressive regime towards gradual reforms. The growing rift between China and the DPRK threatens the tense but relatively stable security dynamic on the Korean peninsula.
Without the support of a great power like China, North Korea may feel increasingly forced into a diplomatic corner, making conflict more likely.
More broadly, however, this series of events demonstrates the increasing importance that events on the sea have upon the fate of governments on the land. In the days of sail, an untold number of acts of theft and violence occurred on the high seas without a word reaching the shores. Even if accounts did reach the land, it would take months to do so. Now, technology enables word of maritime rows to reach the public with great speed and that same technology allows word-of-mouth accounts to shape public opinion as much as government press releases – even in China.
Relations between China and North Korea merit close attention in the coming weeks and months, but the political fallout in China should be taken as a clear sign that the smallest of flare-ups in maritime hot spots could spread quickly and gain a life of its own.
LT Kurt Albaugh is a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
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?
• 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.
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.
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.
Thepanel debatelast 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 thoughtshere.
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.
MAD or MEOW
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 anoft-repeated factis 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.