China has been beefing up its military might, and the rapid growth of its navy, in particular, is creating disagreements in the Defense Department over whether such a build-up ought to be perceived as a threat to U.S. interests in the Pacific.
Analysts who have been monitoring China’s emerging maritime clout say the U.S. Navy needs to incorporate those developments into its immediate and future plans.
China’s military appears focused on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies in the near future as it develops the capacity to rapidly degrade Taiwanese military resistance and at the same time deter, delay or deny potential third party intervention, said David Helvey, a China expert in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He spoke at a conference sponsored by the United States Naval Institute.
“The Taiwan situation, as it stands, is unfortunately causing the U.S. and China to plan for war against each other,” said Lyle Goldstein, associate professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College. It is a problem that could erupt at any time, he warned.
“Beijing has tremendous advantages here. They have advantage of focus. They’re not spread all over the world focusing on missions here and missions there,” he said.
Goldstein pointed out that China is building four classes of submarines simultaneously.
“That’s quite extraordinary,” he told the conference.
Last year, news agencies reported that China had launched 13 submarines between 2002 and 2004. That number excludes the purchase of Kilo class diesel submarines the nation is acquiring from Russia, Goldstein added.
“I think it does make a statement of their focus and willingness to invest serious resources in developing undersea warfare capacity,” said Helvey.
Goldstein also recently concluded a study that surveyed more than 1,000 strategic and tactical documents on China’s mine warfare program, which he called “extremely dynamic” and “frightening.”
“This is an issue that the U.S. Navy has to grapple with,” he told National Defense.
American naval planners should get used to keeping an eye on the China-Taiwan situation, especially with the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election in 2008 because it will affect how the U.S. Navy charts its future, he added.
The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, which calls for 313 ships, presumably includes China contingencies, said Ronald O’Rourke, naval analyst at the Congressional Research Office. But there is potential tension between the Iraq and Afghanistan operations and China as a planning priority.
“Based on the Navy’s recent emphasis on the global war on terror-related operations … observers around town might conclude that the country in the future will need a navy that looks something like a larger, modified version of the Coast Guard — a fleet with a lot of littoral combat ships and some logistics capabilities for disaster relief operations,” he said. “Such a conclusion would do little to justify the higher-end naval capabilities that the Navy hopes to fund in the coming years, many of which would be required for combat scenarios involving China.”
Under the 313-ship plan, there is a requirement for 88 cruisers and destroyers. But there aren’t enough surface combatants in the 30-year shipbuilding plan to hold it to that number over the long run, said O’Rourke. The number of surface combatants will drop to a low of 62, which is a shortfall of 26 ships, or about 30 percent of the required number.
“That is the single largest projected shortfall in the 30-year shipbuilding plan relative to the 313-ship fleet,” said O’Rourke. The shortfall potentially could be larger because financial pressure may preclude the Navy from building all the surface ships in the plan, he warned. Already there are signs that the shipbuilding plan may buckle under budgetary issues. In the Navy’s 2008 program objective memorandum submission, a $3.7 billion amphibious ship originally planned for fiscal year 2010 has been canceled, he pointed out.
If there is a contingency with Taiwan in the 2010 timeframe, then there’s not much the Navy can do between now and then in terms of building new ships because of construction lead time, said O’Rourke. But if the contingency is more focused on the 2020 to 2030 timeframe, then there is plenty of time to add to efforts in the shipbuilding arena, he said.
Though analysts say there has been little public discussion about combat needs in the Pacific, there are indications that the Navy is widening its scope on the region.
Last year’s quadrennial defense review called for bolstering fleets in the Pacific by an additional aircraft carrier and five attack submarines.
Besides reallocating ships, the Navy also is trying to understand China’s intentions for its military build-up.
“We think it’s in the best interest of the world that the Chinese rise peacefully, but we worry about the intent of their large navy,” said Vice Adm. John Morgan, deputy chief of naval operations for information, plans and policy, who spoke at an NDIA expeditionary warfare conference.
The U.S. Naval War College in October stood up a China maritime studies institute to keep a finger on the pulse military and civilian naval affairs, said Goldstein. Using open source materials, researchers are gaining an intellectual grasp of those issues, he said.
Relations between the two nations have been improving since the 2001 spy-plane incident, in which a Navy EP-3 aircraft collided with a Chinese jet fighter and made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. To further encourage the relationship, the Navy has participated in two bilateral search and rescue exercises with Chinese sailors during the last few months.
“It does provide opportunities to gain understanding of how each side operates in the event there might be a humanitarian disaster or crisis, where having that type of knowledge would be beneficial,” said Helvey.
But China’s long-term intentions remain obscure.
In the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military power, Helvey wrote: “China’s military build-up appears focused on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies, including the possibility of U.S. intervention. However, analysis of China’s military acquisitions suggests it is also generating capabilities that could apply to other regional contingencies, such as conflicts over resources or territory.”
China is strengthening its nuclear deterrence capabilities and is shifting from a vulnerable, silo-based liquid fuel set of missile systems to a set of highly mobile, propellant missile systems capable of much greater accuracy, said Helvey.
China also is investing heavily in air defense, both land-based and sea-based capabilities, said Helvey. The new Lujo class guided missile destroyer, carrying the Russian SAM-20 surface-to-air missile, will give China a credible surface maritime air defense capability, which could push the country’s air defense perimeter further seaward, he said. China also is looking to improve its precision strike capabilities. It has more than 800 short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan. At least two varieties of land-tactical cruise missiles and additional variants of medium range ballistic missiles are being developed, which would allow China to deny access to U.S. forces, said Helvey.
“These developments have to be seen in the context of the long-term and comprehensive military transformation that is underway in China today, and has been underway for the last 15 years,” said Helvey.
The fruits of China’s modernization efforts are starting to become more evident not only in the technologies being developed, but also in its force structure, training and exercises, he said.
“This is a fully comprehensive transformation,” he said. From acquiring advanced systems, updating force structure and initiating new research and development to revamping its personnel and logistics systems and developing new doctrine for interpreting modern warfare, China is starting to realize its aspirations for a strong military, he said.
China’s defense budget has soared to nearly $30 billion in 2005, according to globalsecurity.org.
There are questions surrounding the potential development of an aircraft carrier — a move that might indicate that China is looking for the ability to deploy forces globally. A recent study suggests that China’s lack of ability to deploy ships to assist in the tsunami relief efforts in early 2005 created an impetus for a re-examination of aircraft carrier options.
“Looking at the Chinese writings on this subject, it has become clear to us that the Chinese are very broad-minded as to the definition of an aircraft carrier,” Andrew Erickson, assistant professor of strategic studies at the Naval Warfare College and co-author of the study, told National Defense. Traditional flattops, such as the Nimitz class aircraft carriers, are not the only option the Chinese may consider.
China is looking at the possibility of developing smaller ships that might carry helicopters and enable its navy to participate in disaster relief operations, he added.
Despite the ominous tone of the Pentagon’s China report, some do not view China’s military build-up as a serious threat.
“I don’t see China dominating U.S. defense the way the Soviet Union did during the Cold War,” said Thomas Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning.
During the course of history, super powers dealing with rising nations have led to conflicts that turned out in different ways, he said. For example, the United States and Great Britain had military competition in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and are now the strongest of allies. The conflict between Great Britain and Germany in the 20th century, however, did not turn out so well, he said. And the Cold War ran down the middle.
“How things turn out with China remains to be determined,” he said. The U.S. policy to make China more of a stakeholder in the global security environment is a move toward being more constructive, he added.
“You look at the history of rising powers and over and over and over again, you see tremendous instability,” said Goldstein. “History shows we need to be cautious and take the issue seriously.”
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